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The Doctrine of Providence
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Father, God the Son.” The series of sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and was first published in 1996.
In our consideration of these biblical doctrines we come now to a consideration of the biblical doctrine of providence. I think it is right that we should consider this doctrine before we deal with man in particular, because it follows on, in logical sequence, from the doctrine of creation. Now perhaps the best way of describing what we mean by providence is to define it in terms of its relationship to creation. We can put it like this: creation, as we saw, means calling into existence something which did not exist before. So if that is creation, then providence means the continuation, or the causing to continue, of that which has been called into existence. Creation brings things into existence, providence keeps them, or guarantees their continuation in existence, in fulfilment of God's purposes. The doctrine of providence does not just mean, therefore, that God has a foreknowledge of what is going to happen, but is a description of His continuing activity, of what He does in the world, and what He has continued to do since He made the world at the very beginning..
Now there can be no doubt at all but that this doctrine at the present time is a very important one for us to consider. Every biblical doctrine, of course, is important, and we must not take any single one for granted, but if you look at the long history of the Church, you will find that in different times and in different centuries some doctrines assume a particular importance. The great doctrine in the early centuries of the Church was, of necessity, the doctrine of the person of Christ. It had to be. That was the doctrine that was most attacked, so the Church placed its maximum emphasis upon it. At the time of the Reformation it was the doctrine of justification by faith only, and so on, at different times. It behoves us to lay very special emphasis upon particular doctrines, and I am prepared to assert that perhaps in this twentieth century of ours the most important doctrine in many ways is the doctrine of providence.
Now I hope that no one will think that I am arguing that the doctrine of providence is more important than the doctrine of the incarnation or the atonement; that is not my point. I am simply saying that there are certain reasons why we must pay particular attention to this doctrine. Let me give you my reasons. The first is the state of the world at this present time, especially the state of the world during the whole of this century up to now. This doctrine of providence is the stumbling-block to a large number of people who are outside Christ and outside the Church. They say, `I cannot believe your doctrine, I cannot believe your gospel. You say that God is a God of love, well, look at the world; look at the things that have happened in the world; look at these two world wars! How can you reconcile something like that with a God of love, a God who you say is all-powerful, so powerful that there is nothing He cannot do if He so chooses? How can you explain all this?' So you see, the very historical situation in this century concentrates attention immediately upon this great doctrine of providence.
Then another thing that has focused attention on the doctrine of providence is what we call `special providences'. Now special providences are special interventions of God on behalf of individuals or groups of people. For instance, at Dunkirk during the War a kind of mist came down to protect the soldiers while at the same time the sea was unusually calm and smooth, and many people in this country were ready to say that that was a providential act of God. They said that God had intervened in order to save our troops by making it possible for them to be brought back into this country. There are also those who would say the same thing about the wartime defence of Malta. Then, of course, it has been customary and traditional in this country to say that the same thing happened at the time of the Spanish Armada: that what really accounted for the destruction of that fleet was the change in the direction of the wind.
Furthermore, there are people who claim special providences in their own personal lives. `It is most amazing,' they say. `Do you know, this is what has happened to me ...'---and they describe to you how certain things seem to have been arranged particularly in order to suit their special circumstances! And then, when you tell them that they cannot say things like that, they resent the whole doctrine of providence.
Another reason why it is important to be clear about this doctrine, in this century is that most of the thinking of men and women today seems to be determined by what is called a `scientific outlook'. It is undoubtedly the fact that large numbers of people do not even begin to consider the great message of Christianity because, they say, `Your whole message includes the idea of miracles and these interventions of God. For those who take a scientific outlook, as I do, towards the whole of life, such things are a sheer impossibility, and if your gospel contains the supernatural, I just cannot begin to consider it.'
And the last reason I would adduce is this: you cannot begin to talk about prayer, answered prayer, without at the same time introducing the doctrine of providence. So we must consider this doctrine because many other matters presuppose it.
What, then, does the Bible tell us about the doctrine of providence? Again, we are looking at a very difficult subject. The particular doctrines of salvation that we shall be considering are very simple in comparison with a doctrine like this. It is one of those inscrutable doctrines and there is a hymn which reminds us of that. `God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,' says William Cowper, and, `Blind unbelief is sure to err.' And not only blind unbelief, but lack of faith, but a desire to understand that which is impossible, are certain to lead us into trouble if not into error. Therefore let us approach the doctrine of providence with reverence and humility, going as far Scripture takes us, but not going beyond that.
Now the Bible teaches everywhere, very clearly, as I shall show you, that God is in control of all things. Psalm 104 is enough, in and of itself, to establish that doctrine. There is no limit to what He does. Psalm 103:19 also says, `The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.' Everywhere. And the Bible teaches us that first of all, as over against deism, to which I have referred, that doctrine which regards the universe as a kind of watch made by the watchmaker, wound up by him, and then put down to run itself out. But the doctrine of providence contradicts that, and I rather like the comparison which was once used to show the difference. The doctrine of providence tells us that the universe, and everything within it, is like a great ship which is being piloted from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second, by God Himself. Furthermore, of course, it is over against pantheism also, which says that God is everything, and in everything, and that therefore you cannot differentiate between the universe and God Himself. The doctrine of providence contradicts both these views.
How, then, do we find this doctrine in the Bible? Well, first of all we find it in a number of very direct statements in the Scriptures. I shall give you a list of them later on. Then another very powerful argument for the doctrine of providence is based upon the fact of prophecy. It would not be possible for a man inspired by God to predict what is going to take place, perhaps in several hundreds of years, unless God controlled everything. Prophecy is not merely foreknowledge, it is a guarantee---that the prophesied events are going to happen because God is in control.
Then another great argument, as we have seen, is derived from answers to prayer. If we did not believe that God controlled everything, there would be no point in praying---we would not pray for sunshine, we would not pray for rain; we would not pray for health and for the control of disease. Prayer, in a sense, would be ridiculous if we did not believe in the doctrine of providence. And that is why deists do not believe in prayer. Pantheists do not pray; there is no purpose in it. But those who believe in the doctrine of providence obviously pray because the very idea of that doctrine immediately leads to prayer.
And our last general argument is the argument from miracles. Were it not that the doctrine of providence is true, if it were not the case that God has His hand upon everything, and is controlling everything, then miracles simply could not take place at all.
So then, what exactly do we mean by providence? I cannot think of a better definition or description than this: `Providence is that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator upholds all his creatures, is operative in all that transpires in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.' We shall consider the biblical proof for that statement later on. Now there are three elements in this idea of providence, and we must differentiate between them in thought as well as in practice, though, of course, the three tend to work together. You can look at the three aspects of providence from different angles. The first is the aspect or the element of preservation---`that continuous work of God by which He maintains the things which He has created, together with the properties and powers with which He has endowed them.' Now this is most important. The Bible teaches that God preserves everything that He has made. It is a continuous work. Some have tried to say that this doctrine of preservation simply means that God does not destroy the work He once made, but that is not preservation. It means more than that; it means that He keeps everything in being.
Others, too, have misunderstood this doctrine. Incidentally, the great Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest theologians that the Christian Church has ever known, that great American who lived two hundred years ago---if ever you find anything written by him buy it and devour it!---Jonathan Edwards himself almost fell into error about this. It is an error which says that preservation means a continuous process of creation, so that God is continually creating, anew and afresh, everything that exists, and everything is kept going by being created in this way from moment to moment. But that is not really preservation, as I understand it, and as it has been traditionally understood. So we will put it like this: everything that has been created by God has a real and permanent existence of its own, apart from the being of God, but that must never be taken to mean that it is self-existent, which belongs to God alone. If things were self-existent they would not need God in order to keep going. That is the difference. God has created a thing, and He keeps it alive. He upholds all things, and they continue to exist as the result of a positive and continued exercise of His divine power.
Notice how Psalm 104 puts it in verses 28-30: `That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.' Now God does not create these animals of the earth constantly. What He does is to keep life, to preserve what He has already created. Paul, of course, puts this exactly in Acts 17:28: `For in him we live, and move, and have our being.' He means the same thing in Colossians 1:17: `And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.' They are preserved, they are kept going by Him. It is stated still more strikingly in Hebrews 1:3: `upholding all things by the word of his power'. He has not only made them, He upholds them. There is nothing in the universe that would continue to go forward if God were not upholding it. So we must never think, therefore, of the universe as something which God created and then allowed to work itself out; that is deism.
Second, there is the governmental aspect of providence. This means the continued activity of God whereby He rules all things to a definite end and object, and does so in order to secure the accomplishment of His own divine purpose. `The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice' (Psalm 97:1). He is the King of the universe. He is the Lord of lords. Everything is under His control: `his kingdom ruleth over all' (Psalm 103:19). `The nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance' (Isaiah 40:15). That is the idea of government. Or take the mighty statement in Daniel 4:34-5:
And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: and all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?
The governmental aspect of the doctrine of the providence of God is of vital importance and runs through the Bible from the beginning to the end. `His purposes shall ripen fast, unfolding every hour,' says William Cowper. There is an end to this creation, a purpose, an object. Everything is leading up to God's determined purpose for it.
The third aspect of providence that I must emphasise is what has generally been called the aspect of concurrence. It means `the co-operation of God and His divine power with all the subordinate powers according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do'. If you like, it means the whole idea of the relationship of second causes to God's ordering of all things. The Bible teaching is that God works in and through the second causes which He has made. We are all clear, I take it, about secondary causes. We find, do we not, that everything that happens has a cause; certain things lead to certain other things. You see that right through the whole of nature. One thing produces another. Now those are the second causes, and the biblical doctrine of providence teaches the existence of second causes. But it is very, very clear in its emphasis that the second causes do not operate automatically or independently. God works through them. They have their own operations, but God is over all these operations.
Now it is important to emphasise this point, because so many people today speak of the powers of nature as if they were something independent. But they are not. There are powers and laws in nature, but not apart from God. God is in direct relationship to them, and uses them and orders them and manipulates them; so we hold the two ideas at one and the same time---the reality of secondary causes, but their dependence upon God and His control of them.
This is a mystery, of course. This is the difficult aspect of this doctrine---how can these things be true at one and the same time? But the Scriptures teach it. You will find it in Psalm 104:20, 21 and 30. Amos 3:6 says, `Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?' Matthew 5:45 tells us, `. .. for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust'. In other words, these things do not happen automatically as the result of the secondary causes or laws of nature. God is behind them. He is working in them and through them. He is not divorced from them.
So there, briefly, are the three aspects of providence. You can think of them like this: the idea of preservation makes us think of the being of everything that is. The idea of government tells us that this being is guided, and the doctrine of concurrence tells us about how the activity is guided. Being, guidance, and activity.
Then the next question we come to is this: In what way is providence exercised? Or, to put it another way: What are the objects of providence? Now here it is customary to divide providence into general and special. We have just seen that throughout the Bible we are taught that the whole of the universe is being controlled by God. This is general providence. He not only made it, He keeps it going, and He is controlling it.
Then you come to special providence, which can be thought of in three ways. First of all it is God's care for each separate part of the universe in its relationship to the whole. There are abundant Scriptures to prove that. Psalm 104 is nothing but a great elaboration of that point. God not only controls the whole universe, He controls the brooks and the streams and the trees and plants as well---not only general but also particular.
Special providence also means that God has a special care for all rational creatures: animals and human beings. Throughout the Bible we are told that God controls the existence of all people, evil as well as good. That is why He causes His sun to rise and the rain to fall upon all types of people. God is thus related even to sinners, even to men and women who deny Him and do not believe in Him. Scripture teaches that they are not outside a relationship with God.
But, of course, above all, special providence means God's special care for His own people, and what He does for them.
So let us come now to the scriptural statements and the scriptural principles. First, the Bible tells us that God's providence is exercised over the universe at large. Psalm 103:19, which we have already quoted, says `his kingdom ruleth over all'. We find it also in Ephesians 1:11: `the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will'. God is controlling all things everywhere---the heavens and the earth, and under the earth. He has a purpose behind it all.
Second, God's providence is exercised over the physical world; I refer you to the whole of Psalm 104, and also, again, to Matthew 5:45.
Third is God's controlling providence over the brute creation, over the animals. We see that again in Psalm 104 and also in Matthew 6:26, where we read about the birds that `they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them', while in Matthew 10:29 we are told about the sparrows: `and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father'.
Fourth, we are told that His providence is exercised over the affairs of nations; you will find that in Job 12:24, `He taketh away the heart of the chief of the people of the earth, and causeth them to wander in a wilderness where there is no way.' Or again in Acts 17:26 we read, `And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.'
Fifth, we are told that God providentially governs a man's birth and his lot in this world. We read in 1 Samuel 16:1, `And the Lord said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.' And Paul says about himself in Galatians 1:1516, `But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen ...'
In the sixth place, we find that God's providence determines the outward successes and failures in human life: `For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another' (Psalm 75:6-7).
The seventh is this: that God governs things which appear to be accidental, or apparently insignificant. My favourite text to prove that is the first verse of Esther 6, where we are told that the king `could not sleep'. 'Dear me,' says someone, `surely that has got nothing to do with God's providence!' But read the book of Esther, and you will find that it is a crucial point. It is made quite clear that the king could not sleep that night because God kept him awake. So Mordecai was saved, and Esther and her people were saved, through the instrumentality of God causing this insomnia---something apparently trivial and seemingly accidental.
In the eighth place, God's providence protects the righteous. Read Psalm 4:8: `I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety,' says the psalmist. Why? The Lord had protected him. Indeed, that is shown beautifully in both Psalms 4 and 5.
And God supplies, in the ninth place, through providence, the needs of His people: `But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus,' says Paul in Philippians 4:19.
And tenth and last, you will find that every single answer to prayer which is in the Scriptures is just a statement that God providentially orders things in this way for His people.
Now that brings me to what is called `extraordinary providences', or, in other words, miracles, for miracles come under this heading of providence. A miracle is an extraordinary providence. `What is the difference between ordinary and extraordinary providence?' asks someone. I would answer that question like this: in ordinary providence God works through second causes, in accordance with the laws which He has placed in nature. But in extraordinary providences, or miracles, God works immediately, directly, and without the secondary causes. A miracle is God working, not contrary to nature, but in a supernatural manner.
People often get into trouble about this question of miracles because they start by thinking that a miracle is something contrary to nature. But that is quite wrong, and it is wrong because their idea of nature is wrong; they have forgotten that God works in nature. It is simply that God has two different ways of working. Generally He achieves His purposes through the secondary causes; but sometimes He does it directly, and that is a miracle. God is working, as we have been seeing at length, in everything, always and everywhere; so that when you have a miracle, it is still God working, but working in a different way; and to deny the possibility of miracles is to say that God is confined, or bound, by His own laws.
Some people, of course, insist that miracles are impossible because they break the laws of nature. If such people believe in God at all, they mean that God is now bound by the laws which He Himself has placed in nature, and can do nothing about it. They reduce God to a position subservient to His own law. But this denies the doctrine of God all along the line. There is also a tendency, among certain people, to believe in miracles only when they think they can explain them!
Let me illustrate that by a story. I remember once, a man, a deacon, coming to talk to me about his minister; he had been rather troubled about the call of this minister to his church, because he was not quite certain about the soundness and the orthodoxy of this man. But he came to me with great glee and delight one day and said, `You know, our minister now believes in miracles.'
`What has convinced him?' I asked. `What is your evidence?'
`Well,' he said, `he was preaching on Sunday night and he told us that some recent discoveries made in the region of Sodom and Gomorrah have revealed that there were certain substances there which might very well account for what is described in the Old Testament.' So his minister now believed in miracles! But in fact he still did not believe in miracles, for if you can explain a thing scientifically it is no longer a miracle. By definition, a miracle is something that you cannot explain.
Someone else once said that an astrologer had discovered that just about the time---the person talking to me was really quite excited about this, and he was an evangelical---that the children of Israel were crossing the Red Sea, the sun and the moon were so positioned that it was more than likely that a sort of gale had arisen that drove back a part of the Red Sea. So it was possible that the children of Israel had passed over on dry land after all. And this man fondly thought that he was a believer in miracles now! No, no! You will notice, perhaps, that there is a tendency to do this at the present time. It just means that such people are not happy in their belief in miracles, and that they really do not accept the biblical doctrine. A miracle by definition is supernatural. It cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary operation of the laws of nature or of secondary causes. It is God's direct and immediate action.
I think that the real trouble with regard to a belief in miracles is due to the fact that people always will approach them from the standpoint of science or of nature, instead of from the standpoint of God who is all-mighty and who governs and controls everything. The danger in this century is to deify nature, to regard it as some absolute power with which even God cannot interfere. It is an utterly false notion. Once we have the right idea of God's providence, I think most of our difficulties with regard to miracles should be removed.
Now we must mention one or two difficulties which people sometimes have with regard to this doctrine of providence. They say that they are ready to believe in providence in general, but they cannot quite understand the idea of a special providence, and they say they have two reasons for this. The first is that God is surely too great and too all-mighty to be troubled and worried by the details of our petty little problems. The second is that the laws of nature make such an interference impossible. But the Bible teaches us that God is concerned with the details of our lives. He answers the prayers of His people, in detail, in very small matters, and He encourages us to take all things to Him. Paul says, `Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God' (Phil. 4:6). As for that second objection, the biblical teaching denies it utterly. Scripture teaches this special providence of God positively, and miracles, of course, prove it to the very hilt.
But, after all, the great problem is this: if God does govern and control everything, then what is His relationship to sin? All I can do, in answer, is to lay down a number of propositions that are clearly taught in the Scriptures. The first is that sinful acts are under divine control, and occur only by God's permission and according to His ultimate purpose. If you want proof of that you will find it in the case of Joseph and his brethren. `It was not you that sent me hither,' said Joseph, `but God' (Gen. 45:8). God permitted their sinful act and controlled it. You will find the same teaching about the death of our Lord as it is expounded by Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
The second is that God restrains and controls sin. In Psalm 76:10 we read, `Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.'
The third is that God overrules sin for good. Genesis 50:20 puts it like this: `But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.' God overruled the sin, and He did exactly the same in the case of the death of our Lord.
My last proposition is that God never causes sin, nor approves of it; He only permits, directs, restrains, limits and overrules it. People alone are responsible for their sin. The first chapter of James gives that particular teaching clearly.
Let us finish with two general points. The first is to me one of the most comforting of all. I cannot but believe, having read the Bible, that ultimately the whole of providence is for the sake of God's people. If you want a proof of that it is in Romans 8:28: `All things work together for good to them that love God.' It seems perfectly clear to me that, ultimately, God is thus concerned with everything for the sake of His own people, and everything else is being manipulated for our benefit and for our good. It is a wonderful thought, and I commend it to you. As you read your Scriptures keep your eye on that---providence really is concerned about salvation, and everything is kept going in the world for the sake of God's people. Were it not for His people, everything would be destroyed. All others---all sinners---are clearly going to be destroyed. They are preserved and kept going because of God's people and because of God's salvation.
My other point is this: be careful---it is a warning! Always be careful in your application of any particular event. Let me explain: whenever anything good happens to us or to our country we are all very ready, are we not, to say that it was undoubtedly an act of God---the providence of God. I have explained what the doctrine of providence teaches, but I would warn you that it is dangerous to particularise about any particular thing. Take the famous case of Dunkirk. I am not going to express an opinion as to what happened at Dunkirk; I do have an opinion but I shall not give it. All I would do is show you that if you do claim it was an act of God, you must do so in the light of the following. In 1934 German Christians---and very fine Christians among them---issued this statement: `We are full of thanks to God that He as Lord of history has given us Adolf Hitler, our leader and our saviour from our difficult lot. We acknowledge that we, with body and soul, are bound and dedicated to the German State and to its Fuhrer. This bondage and duty contains for us as Evangelical Christians its deepest and most holy significance in its obedience to the command of God.' That surely makes us think, does it not? Here is another declaration of theirs in 1933: 'This turn of history,' they said, referring to Hitler's coming into power, ‘we say God has given him to us, to God be the glory. As bound to God's word we recognise in the great events of our day a new commission of God to His Church.'
Now those people were absolutely sincere; they were absolutely genuine. They were evangelical Christians, and they believed that! So I think you will agree that we must be a little cautious when we come to make particular claims. Or again, someone in Moscow once said of Stalin, `He is the divinely appointed leader of our armed and cultural forces, leading us to victory.' It is a very simple thing to persuade yourself that God has an unusual and a special interest in your country. Let us be very careful lest we bring God and His cause into disrepute by unwise and injudicious claims. Sometimes during the Second World War we had the National Days of Prayer, but terrible things happened almost the next day. Do remember that. My point, then, is this: the doctrine is plain and clear, but let us be judicious and cautious, and have a great concern for the glory and the name of God when we claim any particular event as an instance of His special providence either with regard to us or our country.(140-152)
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