The Providence of God
The Doctrine of the Providence of God
This morning we continue our study in this series on 12 core doctrines of the faith. As I said last week, it is my experience that very often in the church, Christianity is presented as a new set of facts to believe, rather than the good news of a life-saving, affection-transforming, soul-rescuing heart surgery. And as a result, Christianity stays mostly intellectual. Do you know the right answers to the Sunday School questions?
Then I came across a book by Paul Tripp where he examined some of the core doctrines of the Christian faith, explaining what we believe, but also including how that belief or doctrine looks in real life.
Last week, we got to peek through the keyhole of the door, so to speak, into the throne room of God by way of Isaiah 6. In our limited capacity to imagine the scene that Isaiah saw in those few verses, we came away with an understanding of God’s incredible holy, holy, holiness, which brought us face to face with our incredible sinfulness, and hopefully you walked away from last week marveling at the scandalous grace of this holy God.
We saw the Almighty God seated on a high and lofty throne, the hem of his robe filled the temple, which represents how his rule and reign covers the whole earth.
Lori read for us a little more about that throne room scene in 1 Timothy 6, where the apostle Paul writes: …He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal power. Amen.
So today, we are going to double-click, so to speak, on that word “Sovereign.” What does it mean to say God is sovereign? We just sang a song that says: you are sovereign over us. What did you mean when you sang that? Maybe it didn’t mean anything – maybe you thought, hey I just sing whatever words are on the screen, I didn’t really think about it. Well, I’m asking you to think about it now. What do we mean when we say God is sovereign?
To be sovereign means you are the highest authority in the land. That fits the language of a monarchy pretty well. The one on the throne doesn’t answer to anyone. Paul writes there in 1 Timothy that the highest authority in all of creation, heavens and the earth, is Yahweh who is the King of kings, the Lord of lords – in other words, although each country/state/region, whatever, may have their own unique sovereign kings and every business/every school/sports team/etc has their own master or person who calls all the shots, Yahweh is the final and complete, highest authority over all kings, and over all masters, presidents, democracies, courts, dictators and lords.
I could guarantee that 99% of you, by virtue of the fact that you are sitting in a church gathering today, if you were asked a survey question if God has complete authority over all of heaven and earth and rules it from his throne in heaven, you would have checked the box, “AGREE.” We pretty much all agree with that.
But here’s what happens every time we turn on the news: It looks like no one is in control of anything. Or, at least no one who could be called “good” and “holy” and “righteous.” Much more often, it looks like the people we’ve labeled evil or crooked are in control of everything that is happening.
Bad things seem to just keep happening without anyone doing anything about it or slowing it down or stopping them. We still have school shootings happening; sex trafficking, child pornography and slavery still exist here in the US right under our noses; the war in Ukraine is still happening as more and more are killed or displaced every day; sure gas prices have dropped a little, but who is the actual authority to bring those prices down, restore supply chains, and help with food production around the world? Why do we still see abortion, abuse, divorce, cancer, devastating earthquakes like the one in Afghanistan this week, hurricanes, tornadoes that rip houses apart, parents burying their kids…
And then this is one we really struggle with: Why is it that the people who follow Jesus closely seem to go through some of the hardest things on earth? Why does God allow terrible things to happen to really godly people?
Anyone ever wondered that? Of course. We all have. And so when we feel this way about the world, here is where we are tempted to land:
- Chance. The Bible is just a story about how to be a good person. There is actually no divine authority in charge of anything, God is more of a concept than a reality. No matter how much we learn, grow, advance, etc, stuff just happens. It is what it is, there’s nothing you can do about it, so just take it as it comes. It’s all about survival – you just have to hope none of that bad stuff happens to you.
- Deism which teaches that there is a “divine watchmaker who created the world and everything in it, along with the natural laws needed for its operation, wound it up and then essentially let it go” (Allison, 293). He created the world to be good and lovely, but he watches from afar as bad people have ruined the world, and really it’s up to good human reasoning, wisdom, advancing technologies, compassion, caring for each other, working together, etc, that keep the world running smoothly and create a good future for generations to come.
- God is either weak or he’s not good. If God knows everything, including what we will decide to do in the future, but doesn't act to stop evil people from doing the evil he knows they are about to do, then God is either a) not good because he purposely allows bad things to happen, b) he can’t see the future and is just reacting to the decisions we make, or c) he isn’t powerful enough to do anything about what he knows (Allison, 280).
If any of those options is your position on the state of affairs in our world today, I would bet it doesn’t take you very long to get angry, you are quick to complain about anything. I would also guess there is some level of either despair and hopelessness; you are anxious and controlling, and probably very judgmental.
Because even though you might say the words “God is sovereign”, we may sing the song, but when we turn on the news, it doesn’t often look that way. And when we feel like things are out of our control, it’s very tempting to also feel like things are out of control.
Once again, God’s revealed word must be the place we go for answers. And what scripture reveals is that God exercises something called “providence” over all that he has made.
- To say God is sovereign is to say that his authority covers every square inch of the universe he has made. That he could, if he chose, do anything, anywhere, at anytime.
- To say God is Providential over every square inch of the universe is to say he DOES. That every second of every day, he chooses to be intimately involved with all created things in such a way that a) he keeps them existing and acting like he created them; causing them to act as they do; and b) he directs them to fulfill his purposes (Grudem, 315).
SO OUR TOPIC TODAY IS THE DOCTRINE OF THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.
We are going to tear through a whole bunch of scripture as we look at everything that God is and does, some of it you will be like, oh sure, knew that. Other stuff you’ll be like, wow, that’s pretty cool. And then some might make you uncomfortable and you’d like to raise your hand and ask some questions. So let’s dive into what scripture says about God’s providence:
- The Triune God (Father, Son, Spirit) keeps all created things existing.
- Colossians 1:15-20 says that everything that was created was made by God – heavenly things, earthly things, visible things, invisible things, rulers, authorities – all things were created through him and for him – AND it’s his continued work right this moment that makes sure all things hold together. How does he keep them together?
- Hebrews 1:3 – He sustains all things by his powerful word. The same word that said “let there be light” now also keeps making sure that light continues to be light, that water continues to be water, that trees continue to be trees, etc.
- Science is the study of things that are observable, measurable, testable, right? Technology is using some of those observations to accomplish things, like creating a lever, or combustion engine, or electric appliance.
- According to scripture, science and technology only exist because the Triune God upholds the universe by the word of his power. You never have to worry that what was water yesterday will be sawdust today. You never have to worry that some day striking a match will produce a carrot instead of a spark, or that the trees will produce poisonous gas instead of oxygen.
- WHAT ARE ALL THINGS?:
- Humans continue to function the way we were created because God keeps it that way. Acts 17:28 – In him we live and move and have our being. Babies keep being made the way babies are made because God keeps it that way. Cuts and broken bones heal because God keeps it that way. Our eyes see, our ears hear, our feet walk, our digestive system does what it does, our cardio/vascular system does what it does because God keeps it happening that way. Job 34:14-15 – if he withdrew the spirit and breath he gave, every living thing would perish… and mankind would return to the dust.
- God knew every single day of our lives before any of us were born (Psalm 139:16), he brings success and failure (Psalm 75:6-7), he makes the work we do amount to something (Deut 28:12),
- and even is completely in control of what seems random, like rolling dice and coin flips (Prov 16:33).
- Psalm 104:14 says God causes grass to grow for cattle. Job 37:6-13 – tells the snow where to fall, sends rain or withholds it, loads clouds with moisture, scatters lightning… he causes it all to happen. He makes the sun rise (Matt 5:45), brings flowers up and takes care of them (Matt 6:28-30), feeds wild animals (Psalm 104:27), takes care of the tiniest birds, and also oversees their deaths (Matthew 10:28-31). He determined the dimensions of the universe, the orbit and location of planets and stars (Isaiah 40:26), the movements of rivers and streams (Psalm 104:10, Exodus 15), earthquakes and the reshaping of terrain in a flood or landslide or erosion (Psalm 60:2, Job 9:5-6).
- You might say, sure he has control over creation, but what about the whole world at large? What about governments and economies and stuff like that? Job 12:23 says he makes nations great, and then destroys them; enlarges nations and leads them away. Every empire or dynasty that ever existed both came to power and fell from power because he ordained it so. No matter how large and powerful those empires become, God’s throne and authority is never threatened (Ps 22:28, 103:19). Daniel 2:21 says that even the individual kings and rulers, we can add Supreme Courts justices and law enforcement, of every nation on earth are set up by God and removed from power at exactly the moment he determines and the only reason they have any power or authority at all is because God has given it to them (Romans 13:1).
So the first part of God’s providence is that he actively keeps all things existing, and the second part is that God has a purpose for all of human history, and he orders all things to meet that purpose..
- Ephesians 1:11 – God accomplishes (works, brings about) all things according to the counsel of his will. Daniel 4:35 lays it all out pretty clearly: God does what he wants with the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; There is no one who can block his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?”
- You were born the exact hour of the exact day in the exact year you were born, not by chance, but because all of your days (birth and death) were bound and determined (Job 14:5) before you were conceived (Psalm 139:16). Our plans and schedules proceed only because the Lord wills or permits them to (James 4:13-16). He is able to unchangeably ordain everything that happens, yet never violates the will or freedom of his creatures.
- Genesis 50:20, Proverbs 16:4, and Luke 22:22 all let us know that while God never tempts us with evil or sin and never encourages or applauds evil, God even uses evil and evildoers, including Satan himself (Job), as instruments to carry out his divine will, even to the point where God will turn the hearts of kings and leaders (and judges, governors, pastors, etc) whichever direction he needs them to go in order to fulfill his purposes (Prov 21:1), again without taking away their free choice. Even the greatest evil to happen in all of human history, the torture and murder of the Son of God happened according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23).
- Even the salvation and conversion of sinners is not something random or chance. Paul tells us in his letters that of his own will God brought us forth by the word of truth…before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), and that he prepared opportunities and situations for us to walk in and trust him before we had drawn a breath. (Eph 2:10). In what Lori read for us from 2 Timothy, “he has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.
- The physical ailments that we experience – the ones that he chooses to heal and the ones he allows to remain – are all by his design or permission, pointing us to his glorious grace (2 Cor 12:7), including Christian suffering and persecution (1 Peter 3:17, 4:19, 2 Cor 4:17-18). He is the one who produces spiritual fruit (Phil 1:10-11) in believers, and oversees the process of sanctification where we become more and more like Christ as we mature (1 Thess 5:23, 2 Cor 3:18). It is God who preserves saints in holiness and blamelessness for the day Jesus returns (1 Thess 3:12-13). He’s the one who keeps us from falling away from him, and returning to our rebellious state.
- As a judge, he is only and always good and true and right in his judgments, even as he passes eternal condemnation on those who refuse to acknowledge his holiness (Romans 9).
- And right about the time you’re tempted to think that nothing you do matters because God has already planned it all out, God invites us as believers to pray as a means to bring about his purpose! He invites us to pray MORE, and when we pray, Psalm 33:10-11 tells us God frustrates the plans of nations and people. Through prayer he saves the lost, heals the sick, changes weather, and brings about change in the world, promising us in Romans 8:28 that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to this eternal and wise and glorious purpose.
He never has questions, never is surprised, never frustrated, never wonders what could have happened, never runs into something he doesn’t know, never looks back with regret, never hopes, never waits, never feels helpless or has something he can’t figure out, and never finds himself at a loss (Tripp, 130).
Some of what I just presented may have created a lot of tension in you. You are not comfortable with everything I just said God is sovereign over. It’s fine that he feeds the birds and is in control of rivers and clouds, but I don’t like it that he is also in control of and allows all the evil that happens in the world, he is sovereign over and in control of who he saves by grace and how that comes to be – and of course, I don’t like how many things God does that I would do differently.
We desperately want to be sovereign. We get ourselves twisted so quickly because things aren’t going the way we would orchestrate them to go if we were in control. We get angry at the slow driver in front of us. We get annoyed and upset with our children when they go too slow or make a mess or ask too many questions or make decisions we wouldn’t want them to make. We start barking at the talking heads on TV when they say something we disagree with. There may even be some of you considering leaving River City Church because we don’t teach or do things or lead things the way you would.
Deep in all of our hearts, we would like the world to follow the wonderful plan we have for our lives. In the Garden of Eden, the temptation that Adam and Eve finally gave into was this: “You will be like God,” and it’s the root of all sin ever since. That’s the tragedy we all live in every day as we watch the news, is that 7 billion people, even those saved by grace, continue to try to be sovereign over their own lives.
But when we open scripture, we see a God who is firmly in control of every single thing that happens in his good world, is able to redeem even the worst of circumstances to turn them into something good, and invites us to trust him with what we see.
If God were not sovereign, you would not be able to rely on a single promise in scripture to be true or ever come to pass. But because he is sovereign, we can have 100% confidence that what he has spoken will happen. You never have to question God’s ability to come through, because he has unstoppable control over every situation, location, and relationship where his promises must be fulfilled. You are never in a place where his promises can’t reach you.
If God were not sovereign, there would be no purpose in prayer because you would pray to a God who can’t do anything. You could ask for help, but his hands would be tied by the actions/reactions/random events of life. But because he is sovereign over every single second of every day, and has decided to use our prayers as the means to accomplish the things he’s set out to accomplish – we can pray in full assurance that our prayers actually work! Prayers don’t just bounce off the ceiling: He hears and acts and directs because he can!
If God were not sovereign, you would have every reason to despair in suffering. But since God is sovereign, you can get up every morning, pain or no pain, sorrow or no sorrow, knowing that whatever comes down the line for you today is 1000% under his sovereign control, and nothing will happen to you that he doesn’t cause or allow that moves you closer to being like Jesus. So when dark moments come, I don’t have to panic or fear, because the one who is in control is perfectly wise and good and whatever he ordains is right, even if I can’t fathom it in my own limited understanding.
And all throughout human history, God wasn’t just micromanaging his universe because he is OCD and needs everything in his place.
“God exercised his sovereign rule to author the most wonderful story ever written. He has ruled every situation, every location, every person, and every family that was necessary for human history to march toward the coming of Jesus. He ordained Old Testament covenants, orchestrated freeing his people from slavery, the giving of his law and its sacrificial system, the occupation of the Promised Land, the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms, the preservation of the line of kings, and told the prophets what he would do long before it came to pass.
“He ruled the birth in Bethlehem, the collection and commissioning of the disciples, the opposition of the Pharisees, and the compromise of Pilate, all so the Son would be the final sacrifice on the cross. He chose that borrowed tomb and that it would soon be empty. He ordained that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection could be applied to sinners; he ordained that we would come about salvation by faith, not by jumping through hoops or efforts to be “good”. God ordained the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. He ruled over the birth and spread of his Holy Spirit-infused church and the proclamation of the gospel to the world.
He ordained and ruled over the writing and preservation and translation of his word. He ordained the continued preaching of the gospel until it came to your ears and created belief in your heart. He ordained that your story would (not be just one of billions who would walk the planet, but that it would) be embedded into the glorious story of Jesus, and he ruled over every individual and circumstance and relationship that made it happen. His sovereignty gave the world Jesus, and his providence led you to his Son. He is Lord over the story that has given you Jesus, and that not only assured your destiny, but also guaranteed life in him and with him until then” (Tripp, 138).
Nehemiah 9:6 – You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.
The doctrine of the Providence of God is meant to lead us to worship.
Like a good parent with their children, God will not let you in on everything he is doing. You will have questions. Out of his great love for you, you don’t get to see the whole story from where you sit. But the story of scripture is meant to take you and I, page after page, into the sovereign wisdom and providence of God as he gives us more and more of himself.
Benediction: Romans 11:33-36
Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994)
Paul David Tripp, Do You Believe? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021)