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Definition

The providence of God is the working of God’s sovereignty to continually uphold, guide, and care for his creation.

Summary

God’s providence is the working of his power to uphold, guide, and care for his creation. Some theologians have described this as a continual creation, as opposed to notions that God created the world and then stepped back from it. The providence of God leaves no room for chance or competition between God and another power. God, as the primary cause, causes everything, but this does not remove the ability of creatures to cause or act. Rather, God grants to all creatures their power to act as causes in the world. The providence of God is different than predestination in that the latter focuses particularly on the salvation of the elect, while providence is general. We cannot know all of the particularities of God’s providential plan; only God knows how all things will work together. Finally, Christian prayers should be expressions of the aspirations of Christ’s followers made in the presence of God rather than lists of requests.

The work of providence is an aspect of the sovereignty of God with respect to his creation. He has not only created the universe, but he upholds it and governs it. And, if it is true that new galaxies emerge and that these are not natural effects of ones that already exist, then the work of creation continues. Some theologians, such as the prominent theologian William Ames (1576–1633), have referred to divine providence as involving a creatio continua. Those who have articulated the doctrine have done so in the face of various objections from pagan and sub-theistic notions of God’s care. For example, Aristotle’s idea of providence is that God exercises a general care over the creation, against which it has been argued that God’s care encompasses the smallest as well as the greatest. The hairs of our head are all numbered, as are the daily occurrences of awaking and falling asleep. Further, unlike the deists, who think of God’s creation is activated by an inherent impulse of physical motion at the creative moment, the creation is dependent on the immediate power of God. Providence is detailed, “meticulous,” and God continually exerts his power to keep his creation in being, without which the created would become nothing. So, to distinguish the biblical view from alternatives, as already noted, there is a sense in which God’s preservation through time of his creation involves a continuous creation.

Providence and Chance

One clear corollary of this meticulous providence is the banishment from our thinking of “lucky” events or actions as the operation of Fortune. There is no source of events, however surprising and capricious they may be to us, than the will of Almighty God who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). James cautions us not to take for granted events that at present seem subject to our own will (James 4:15). Even Satan and other fallen angels are subject to the divine will (Job 1). Christian theology is monistic, not dualistic. It was a surprise to Joseph’s brothers to see the caravan of the Midianites appear and equally surprising that rather than murdering him they sold Joseph to them on their journey to Egypt. But as they were to discover, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:30).

God as Cause

Traditionally, the distinction between God as the first cause and created causes as secondary is employed to demarcate the distinction between the creatures’s causal powers, invested in them by their Creator, and God’s. When I eat my breakfast, it is not God eating my breakfast. God upholds me in existence and conserves my powers by a fresh input of his power, and I eat the breakfast by my powers. God conserves in existence what he has created as he sees fit. Besides creating and conserving, he also governs his creation for his purposes. That is, his creation is purposive, having an end or ends. In this Creator-creature arrangement, “by the same providence, [God] ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes” as the Westminster Confession puts it (V.II). So, the actions of insects are not that of birds or of cattle or of men and women, but each has appropriately different natures which God “respects,” ordering events for them to “fall out” and not to violate. And yet—and this is the mystery of it—God actively governs his creation, “working all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). He governs all creatures and all their actions in a way that has no human parallel.

Providence and Predestination

Providence is to be distinguished from predestination. Predestination has to do with salvation. It is the way that God destines the elect, working in them more directly and intimately than in the case of his providential care more generally, so that in regeneration men and women are born again (John 3), God shines in their hearts (2 Cor. 4:6), and he implants new life in them, calling them by his grace (Rom. 8:29). As Isaac Watts put it in his hymn “High in the Heav’ns, Eternal God”,

The whole creation is thy charge,

But saints are thy peculiar care.

Providence as Mysterious

Providence is mysterious because of the unparalleled nature of God’s working and of the universe’s physical forces, and also because of the fact that, due to the fall, God supports in being innumerable acts of evil and injustice, including acts of blasphemy, which produce untold miseries. This is supremely apparent in bringing to pass the death of his spotless Son by crucifixion by wicked men, “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28).

God is said to permit such evil, but it is a permission in which his will is active, not the passive permission which gives discretion to the one permitted to do one of a variety of alternative actions. God’s is a “willing permission”, having definite ends in view. The mystery of providence can only be lessened by seeing more and more of God’s purposes, both their extent in time and space, and the thoughts and intents of men and women. For these reasons, we never get the full picture, so frustration and embarrassment are obvious. We do not yet know as we are known, and we have plans that will succeed only “if the Lord wills” (James 4:15).

We have some idea of the shape of God’s goodness in the face of the innumerable evils of life. For example, the “Greater Good Defense” argues for a “greater end” in view, such as in the Father’s willing the death of his beloved Son. Why evil? Why did God permit it? It is not satisfactory to answer, “For the human race to express their freedom.” The evils that befell the God-man are central, and so any answer should be Christocentric in character. With the death of God’s Son being central among evils, how are these other evils to be understood?

Knowing what we do, it is perhaps surprising that the NT does not give any clues on the justification of evils. They never enter Paul’s reckoning, not in the way we may think we can benefit from. Instead, the welfare of the churches is central. He never alludes to the political or other policies of the Roman emperor except as carrying out God’s will, including providing for the churches’s civil peace (1 Tim. 2:1) by the magistrate’s bearing the sword as agents of divine justice (Rom. 13:1). This silence about the justification should make us hesitant to adopt a “know all” attitude concerning these issues.

Providence and Prayer

These factors, such as the mysterious character of providence, the place of evil, and the secrecy of God’s plan for the human race, have obvious effects on such personal matters as guidance and prayer. Prayer is not like a physical force, a spiritual force which depends for its efficacy on frequency, repetition, and loudness. The Lord’s Prayer, and its reference to the will of God, provides the model. God knows our situation: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). The words that precede the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 are the key.

Our prayers should not be or contain wish-lists, however troubled and needy we may be, because God already knows our situation. We are in his hand. Our prayers should be expressions of the aspirations of Christ’s followers made in the presence of God. God knows our hearts, and he will answer us according to his will for us. If our prayers are requests for guidance, God will answer them in the same way, but the principles of guidance are public-knowledge. We know them by reading about the example and the teaching that the New Testament helps us with. Take Paul’s great prayer for strength in living life as a Christian in Ephesians 3, that “he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:16–19) This is a prayer that has wholly to do with a Christian’s growth in grace, especially in love. It is surrounded by an awareness of the one praying in relation to God, and of the desire for God to answer the prayer with growth in maturity rather than particular situations.

Further Reading


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.