Part 1: Thinking Biblically
“Providence” is a theological term describing God’s preserving, sustaining, ordering, ruling, and governing of His creation. Many have used the word “meticulous” to describe the extent of God’s providence. “Meticulous” providence depicts God as ordering and directing everything—every detail in the universe. According to this understanding, every event in nature and every human action and decision is according to God’s decree and purpose.
There are a number of biblical texts which affirm this view. For example, in Ephesians 1:11 we are told that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (NKJV1). And Paul concludes the eleventh chapter of Romans with these grand and all encompassing words of praise to God: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). Both of these verses are what might be called “theological maxims” (i.e. fundamental principles or comprehensive statements of truth).
The Old Testament also contains a number of these maxims regarding God’s providence:
Then Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:1-2).
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:6).
I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure . . . ” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; And no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35).
Despite the infinite scope of Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 11:36, as well as the comprehensive nature of the frequent statements found in the Old Testament, many Christians do not understand God’s providence in this way. Though almost all Christians will say “God is sovereign,” or “God is in control,” many become skeptical when He is said to decree the occurrence of destructive or tragic events. Some will protest when He is said to order and direct the free choices of the human will. They may complain bitterly when God is said to ordain and decree sinful actions as part of His perfect plan. They prefer to think that when bad things happen, when people sin or when tragic events occur, God has nothing to do with planning the event. In their view He merely responds like a hero, miraculously causing all things to work together for good. But does this understanding represent God’s providence biblically?
The only way to properly understand God and praise Him for His providence is to search the Scriptures. In the Bible, what relationship does God have to the good things that happen? What about the multitudes of seemingly insignificant things? What about the things that are commonly attributed to “chance” or “luck”? What about disasters, or tragic events? What about sin? Do the Scripture’s portray God merely as an all-knowing and all-powerful responder to otherwise natural or human events? Or is He shown to be the sovereign Designer of all things?
Every Good Thing
Though we, as Christians, are taught to be holy in all our conduct (1 Peter 1:15), to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), and to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1), we are also informed that in all these good things “it is God who is at work in [us] both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, cf. Colossians 1:29). Though we “press on toward the goal” of perfection as Paul did (Philippians 3:14), we must understand that it is God who has begun, and will complete, the good work in us (Philippians 1:6;). He has, in fact, predestined us “to become conformed to the image of His Son . . . ” (Romans 8:29). As Paul assured the Thessalonian Christians concerning their sanctification and preservation, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
We are not passive, either in our sanctification or our endurance in the faith. But the working of godliness and endurance in us, our pursuit of holiness, our ever-increasing and eventually perfect conformity to the image of Christ, is the work of God’s providence from beginning to end. After Paul’s conversion, he no longer had the desire to enter Damascus to persecute Christians. But it was the Lord who had providentially intervened and altered the intent of Paul’s will. Abimelech, king of Gerar, told the Lord that it was his own integrity that prevented him from sinning with Abraham’s wife, Sarah. The Lord acknowledged Abimlech’s integrity, but then said, ” . . . and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6).
Even our spiritual birth and subsequent faith in Christ, our regeneration and justification, were according to God’s decree. Just as the Thessalonians were chosen from the beginning for salvation (2 Thessalonians 2:13), God has chosen all believers, predestinating them to adoption as His children (Ephesians 1:4-5). And notice what Paul writes about the timing of his own conversion to Christ. It happened, Paul says, “when [God] . . . was pleased to reveal His Son in me . . . ” (Galatians 1:15-16). God determined not only that Paul would be saved (cf. Acts 9:15), but also when and where he would be saved.
The characteristics of God’s providence are evident in every aspect of the Christian life, from His creation of spiritual life in us, to faith, to spiritual growth, and even to death. It is at God’s appointed moment that every person dies (cf. Deuteronomy 32:35; Job 14:4; Psalm 139:16; Hebrews 9:27). And for the Christian, though death is understandably frightening, it is a blessed event, the moment God has providentially chosen for the end of earthly struggles and the beginning of heavenly perfection.
“Insignificant,” or “Natural” Occurrences
In teaching His followers not to be fearful about persecution or death, Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). Notice that Jesus did not say, “apart from your Father’s knowledge.” He was not merely saying the Father knows when a sparrow dies. He was speaking of God’s providence—His ordaining of something as insignificant as the death of a sparrow. He goes on to say, “But the very hairs on your head are all numbered,” again not referring merely to God’s knowledge, but to His providential determination of the most minute and seemingly insignificant facts and events.
Every day we see birds, squirrels, and other animals in search of food. This is such a common, ordinary event that we rarely take notice or thought. But who provides the food for these animals to eat? Are they on their own in this world, left to scratch out an existence as best they can? Or do they have a Provider? Consider the following passages:
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God (Psalm 104:21).
There is the sea, great and broad, in which are swarms without number, animals both small and great. . . . They all wait for You to give them their food in due season. You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good (Psalm 104:25, 27-28).
He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry (Psalm 147:9).
If God provides the food for every creature in the sea, how thankful we should be when He sets a meal before us. Remember that it is God who “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25 NKJV). God also ordains the death of even the most insignificant creature. As the psalmist writes, referring to every creature on earth, “You take away their spirit, they expire and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29).
Why do rivers flow where they do? Because God has directed them there (Psalm 104:10; Proverbs 21:1). Why does rain, snow, or hail fall where it does? Because God has sent it to that specific place at that specific time (Genesis 7:4; Exodus 9:18; Joshua 10:11; Job 38:22-23; Matthew 5:45). Why does lightening strike where it does? Because God has ordained its path (Job 38:25). Why is there such great variety in the characteristics and behavior of animals and birds? Because God has created each one to be and to do precisely what He pleases (Job 39). In God’s providence, no event is truly “natural” and nothing is insignificant. He works all things according to the counsel of His will.
Events of Chance or Luck
After Judas committed suicide, the eleven remaining disciples saw the need, based on the prophetic words of Psalm 109:8, to appoint his replacement. Two men were nominated based on a variety of qualifications. The disciples then prayed, saying, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen . . . ” (Acts 1:24). After asking for the Lord’s guidance, they “drew lots” to see which one would be chosen. The lot “fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles” (v. 26).
Were these men leaving this important decision to “chance” or “luck”? On the contrary, they were relying on their understanding of God’s meticulous providence. Drawing or casting lots in order to make important decisions was a common practice in the Old Testament (cf. Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 14:1-2; 1 Chronicles 25:8-31; etc.). What is notable about the decisions determined by lot, however, is that they were seen as coming directly from the Lord. This is consistent with the biblical understanding of God’s providence as seen in Proverbs 16:33—”The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” For the one who understands God’s providence rightly, “chance,” “luck,” or “good fortune” have no foundation in reality.
Destructive or Tragic Events
When an airplane crashes and hundreds of people are killed, are we supposed to believe such a tragic accident happened according to the counsel of God’s will? When an earthquake kills thousands of people, is it really appropriate to say that it happened according to God’s purpose? What about destructive storms? What about devastating droughts that bring famine? Aren’t these events just “accidents” or “natural occurrences”?
To answer these questions biblically, consider the following passages:
I am the Lord, and there is no other; the one forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these (Isaiah 45:6-7).
Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass, when the Lord has not commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed? (Lamentations 3:37-38, NKJV).
If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it? (Amos 3:6).
Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps. He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; He makes lightening for the rain; He brings the wind out of His treasuries (Psalm 135:6-7).
Moreover, He called for a famine in the land; He destroyed all the provision of bread (Psalm 105:16 NKJV).
Also consider Job, whose great personal losses of possessions, servants, and family members were caused by robbery, murder, fire from heaven, and strong wind. His physical suffering was due to an illness of some sort that caused painful boils. Job’s wife wanted him to “‘Curse God and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we accept good from God, and not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with His lips” (Job 2:9-10).
Job understood that all of his losses, and all of his suffering, were from the Lord. He did not ultimately attribute the strong wind that collapsed the house and killed his children to “nature.” He did not see the murderous raiders themselves as the ultimate source of the loss of his livestock and servants. He did not see his boils as merely an illness. Job knew that all of these things came ultimately from the hand of God. He did not even seek to protect God’s reputation by pointing the finger at Satan. And incidentally, neither did his wife. Even in her anger, she too attributed all to God.
In the first two chapters of Job, we learn that the sinful actions of certain people, as well as Satan’s evil will, brought about much of his suffering and loss. Nevertheless, Job understood that all was from the Lord. This raises a difficult question: If God’s providence is all encompassing, that is, if God really works everything according to the counsel of His will, does this mean that even the sinful actions of people and the evil worked by Satan are according to God’s decree and purpose?
Before we answer that question, we need to affirm what the Bible says about the character of God. God is perfectly good. He is perfectly and infinitely holy, righteous, and just. As Psalm 92:15 says, “there is no unrighteousness in Him.” People are sinful. Satan is nothing but evil. But “As for God,” David writes in Psalm 18:30, “His way is blameless.” We must never accuse God of wrongdoing or ascribe evil to Him as if He were guilty of it. We must never infer that God sins, or that He Himself tempts men to sin (cf. James 1:13). “What shall we say then?” Paul asks in Romans 9:14; “Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” (NKJV).
The Bible leaves no doubt that in one sense, the sinful actions of men are not according to God’s will. When men sin, they violate God’s law. They go against His Word. They do what He has forbidden them to do. Joseph’s brothers sinned when they cast their brother into a pit, sold him to slave traders, and lied to their father. Pharaoh sinned when he disobeyed God and refused to let the Israelites go. Judas sinned when he betrayed Christ. The Pharisees, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers sinned when they falsely accused, tortured, and murdered Jesus. Each of these men acted willfully, and in direct opposition to God’s will in the sense that sin is always contrary to God’s moral standard. But the Bible tells us just as plainly that in another sense, all these men were serving God, carrying out His will perfectly. In violating His divine moral standard, they were accomplishing His providential purpose.
Since this is the most difficult and controversial aspect of God’s providence, it will be helpful to take a close look at several examples:
1. Joseph’s Brothers (Genesis 37-50)
Joseph’s brothers hated him out of jealously. They plotted together to murder him. Only one brother, Reuben, did not want to kill Joseph. But even he was in favor of casting him into a pit, where he would most likely die. After they did this deed, they all sat down to eat a meal. When slave traders came along, Judah persuaded his brothers that they might actually profit from their hatred by selling Joseph. For twenty shekels of silver, Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. The brothers then killed a young goat, dipped Joseph’s colorful coat in the blood, and told their father that he had been killed by wild beasts.
Eventually, when a famine depleted their food supplies, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt. There, plenty of food was stored, because God had enabled Joseph to inform the Pharaoh that the famine was coming. Pharaoh placed Joseph in charge of governing Egypt, and Joseph stored vast quantities of grain before the famine struck. When Joseph’s brothers found that he was governing Egypt, they were grieved because of what they had done. But Joseph said to them, ” . . . do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . So now it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:5, 8). The psalmist interprets the account of Joseph in the same way, attributing the event to God’s providence alone. In Psalm 105:17, Joseph’s brothers are not mentioned at all: “He sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.”
Later, after their father Jacob died, the brothers feared that Joseph would feel free to avenge their act of hatred. They said to one another, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him” (Genesis 50:15). But Joseph, understanding God’s providential purpose in his brothers’ sin, replied, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (50:20).
Considering all the evil done by Joseph’s brothers in sinfully causing Joseph to be sent to Egypt, we might feel more comfortable saying God used it for good. But that is not what the Bible says. It clearly says that He “meant” it for good. All aspects of this event, even the hatred, conspiracy to commit murder, and lying, were providentially ordained by God as His means of sending Joseph to Egypt and saving His chosen people.
2. Pharaoh’s Rebellion (Exodus 4-14)
After commanding Moses to go back to Egypt to set the Israelites free, the Lord said to Him:
“When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharoah all the wonders which I will put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21).
This sounds very strange. God clearly wanted to free the Israelites. He told Moses that He was sending him to bring about their release. But then God immediately informed Moses that the release of the captives would not go smoothly. Why not? Because He was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart “so that” Pharaoh would not let them go.
Pharaoh’s first response to God’s command to free the people is recorded in the next chapter:
But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).
Pharaoh’s disobedience is clearly shown here to be the result, not the cause, of the Lord’s providential hardening of his heart. In other words, the Lord did not harden Pharaoh’s heart because he disobeyed; the Lord hardened his heart so that he would disobey. Why would the Lord do this? Why would it be His purpose that Pharaoh sinfully disobey Him? In this case, we are not left to speculate. We are told that it was not merely God’s purpose to free the Israelites, but to free them through the great signs and judgments which He poured out on Egypt as punishment for Pharaoh’s rebellion. As God says to Moses:
You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments (Exodus 7:2-4).
Without Pharaoh’s rebellion, neither the great plagues nor the parting of the Red Sea would have been necessary. The Israelites would have walked quietly and peacefully out of Egypt. But apart from the plagues and the other awesome displays of God’s power, God’s glory would not have been magnified as He intended. In the final analysis, God’s providential purpose is declared to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:15-16:
For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth.
Many will assert that Pharaoh first hardened his own heart in disobedience, and that God, only in response to Pharaoh’s disobedience, hardened it further as a means of judging him. But even a surface examination of the facts, grammar, and context in this case make such a conclusion impossible to defend. Between Exodus 4:21 and Exodus 14:17 there are eighteen references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Ten times, the Lord is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, including the first two references as well as the last seven. Five times the reference is neutral (i.e., his heart “was hardened,” or “became hard.”), and three times Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. But in five of the eight references where God is not directly said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, we are still told that it happened “as the Lord had said,” or “just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” Because of this, we cannot help but bring to mind God’s words in Isaiah 46:11—”Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.” Additionally, in five places between Exodus 4 and 14, purpose clauses are used (i.e. “so that,” or “for this reason”) to conclusively demonstrate that the Lord was doing His work, in His way, not merely in response to Pharaoh’s disobedience (cf. Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:16, 10:1-2; and 11:9).
If that is not enough convincing proof, remember that in Romans 9 Paul uses God’s dealings with Pharaoh specifically to refute an argument against meticulous providence as it encompasses sinful behavior. Paul first explains God’s choice of Jacob over Esau while they were still in their mother’s womb. And he goes to great lengths in verse 11 to make sure the reader understands that God made His choice before the twins were born, that is, before either of them did any good or evil. After quoting Malachi 1:2-3 (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”) along with several verses from Exodus which remind the reader of God’s dealings with Pharaoh, Paul writes, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Romans 9:18).
Paul’s intent is not to deny that these men are deserving of God’s judgment, even from the womb. Four chapters earlier he taught that all men are, by nature, condemned sinners because of the sinfulness and guilt they inherited from Adam (cf. Romans 5:12-19 and Ephesians 2:1-3). His intent here is to prove that God’s choice between individuals and His sovereign use of them for His purposes does not hinge on their own goodness or sinfulness. The very fact that Paul mentions God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the same context as His sovereign choice between two unborn children, proves the point. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart could not have been merely in response to Pharaoh’s disobedience any more than God’s rejection of Esau was in response to his.
3. David’s Sinful Census
If the example of Pharaoh is difficult to accept, consider the Lord’s dealings with David. In 2 Samuel 24:10 we read:
Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”
What had David done that was so wicked? David had taken a census, but not merely for the purpose of civil government. He was numbering his armies to determine his military strength (cf. v. 9). He may have wanted to boast, or perhaps he was planning to take land that the Lord had not granted to him. In any case, the census indicated that his trust was shifting from the Lord to his military strength, a clear sin, in violation of the principle found throughout the Psalms (cf. 20:7; 25:2; 44:5-8; also see Jeremiah 9:23-24). Whatever his motive, in verse 10 we are told that David knew his action was sinful. But go back and read verse 1 of the same chapter:
Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
This text is almost shocking. The Lord, in His anger with the nation of Israel, somehow incited David to sin by pridefully commanding that a census be taken. And this is not merely an odd wording in one version. The rendering in the New King James Version is actually more explicit:
Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
In response to David’s sin, the sin which the Lord had providentially incited him to commit, the Lord punished the objects of His anger, the people of Israel, by sending a plague which killed seventy-thousand.
It is interesting to note that in 1 Chronicles 21:1 we are told that it was Satan who “stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” Are these two versions of the same incident in conflict with one another? Not at all. Like the account of Job’s suffering, God providentially used Satan’s evil will to accomplish His own purpose. Both Satan and David, in willfully committing sinful acts, were God’s instruments in bringing judgment to Israel.
4. Samson’s Lust (Judges 14-16)
Samson is well known for his great strength. He was the man who burned the Philistines’ crops (Judges 15:4-5), slaughtered them with a great slaughter (15:8), and eventually destroyed their temple to the false god, Dagon, killing thousands (16:30). At one point, he killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (15:15). When the Philistines finally captured him, they referred to him as “the destroyer of our country, who has slain many of us” (16:24).
How did all of this begin? What inspired Samson to inflict so much death and destruction on the Philistines? Believe it or not, it was all over a woman. Samson had fallen in love (or lust) with a Philistine woman. Despite the Lord’s commandment forbidding intermarriage between the Israelites and the other nations of Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:3-4), Samson said to his father and mother:
I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife (14:2).
His father and mother tried to dissuade him from his sinful intent, but Samson would not be denied. He practically ordered them, saying, “Get her for me, for she looks good to me” (14:3). They reluctantly acquiesced, securing the unholy union. After some time, however, her father gave her to another man. When Samson destroyed the Philistines’ crops in retaliation, the Philistines burned his wife and her father to death (14:20-15:6). In his anger, Samson became “the destroyer” of their country.
Samson was provoked to a jealous rage because of a wife he should never have taken. His parents knew the marriage was sinful, but arranged it anyway. But in Judges 14:4 we read:
However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time, the Philistines were ruling over Israel.
What was “of the Lord”? There is no ambiguity in this text. Samson’s lust, as well as his parents sinful cooperation in his marriage, were both according to the Lord’s providential decree. Their sinful acts were God’s providential means of moving Samson to inflict destruction and death upon the wicked Philistines whom God intended to punish.
These last four examples may have challenged your understanding of the extent of God’s providence. And these four by no means stand alone. The Bible is filled with similar examples, several of which are worth mentioning briefly. For example:
- The two sons of Eli were rebuked by their father for the wicked behavior in the tabernacle at Shiloh. “Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them” (1 Samuel 2:25 NKJV). We might prefer the text to read “they did not heed the voice of their father, therefore the Lord desired to kill them.” But it does not say that. Their unrepentance is clearly attributed to the fact that the Lord had already determined to kill them, and therefore providentially withheld them from repentance (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-26).
- The Egyptians and their Pharaoh, after the time of Joseph, were wicked people who enslaved the Hebrew people. One of their most treacherous acts, designed and carried out to prevent the Hebrews from gaining enough strength to mount a rebellion, was the plan to kill every male child at birth (Exodus 1:15-16). But in Psalm 105:25, we learn that it was the Lord who “turned their hearts to hate His people and to deal craftily with His servants.” Even this wicked and murderous scheme was according to God’s providential decree.
- The wicked nation of Assyria, in brutally and sinfully plundering and enslaving Israel, was a mere instrument in the hands of God as He carried out His divine purposes. The Lord later punished Assyria for its evil, specifically for proudly boasting of military success as if the victory had been according to their own power. The metaphor in this case is clear as the Lord asks:
Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?
Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it?
An axe cannot bring down a tree apart from a man swinging it. Likewise, the Assyrian armies did not bring disaster and destruction to Israel apart from the Lord’s providential intent and purpose.
- God used Cyrus, king of the ungodly nation of Persia, as His instrument to punish the wicked Babylonians and free captive Israel. Cyrus was no paragon of virtue. He did not conquer Babylon and free Israel out of the purity of his heart or his hatred of oppression. He was a proud, greedy, brutal, empire-building king who had no qualms about stealing, killing, and enslaving others. Yet even in his sinful intent, he was the Lord’s instrument. As the Lord says:
“My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure;”
Calling a bird of prey from the east,
The man of My purpose [referring to Cyrus] from a far country.
Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass.
I have planned it, surely I will do it (Isaiah 46:10-11).
5. The Crucifixion of Christ
Perhaps the most dramatic example of God’s providence in ordaining sinful behavior is seen in the crucifixion of Jesus. The Pharisee’s murderous plot was sinful. Judas’ betrayal was sinful. Pilate’s cowardly decision to crucify Jesus was sinful. Every stroke from the Roman soldier with the scourge was a sinful stroke, and every blow from those who drove the nails was a sinful blow. All of these men were guilty of murder in the highest degree. Nothing could possibly be more evil than the murder of the holy and blameless Son of God. Yet in every detail of this event, God’s providential decree and purpose was precisely carried out. As Isaiah foretells the event:
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities; . . .
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, . . .
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief (Isaiah 53:5, 7, 10, NKJV).
Additionally, consider the prayer of the early disciples after the crucifixion:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur (Acts 4:27-28).
It is clear from these passages that God not only predestined the crucifixion of Christ, but also every act of the human instruments who would carry it out. And as Isaiah stated, it was ultimately the LORD, not men, who bruised the Christ. This may seem shocking to some, but we need to remember that it was the wrath of God, not of man, that Jesus bore on the cross.
It is just as clear, since Christ was without sin and did not deserve to die, that He could not be put to death by men unless they behaved sinfully in doing so. Therefore, in God’s providence, it was necessary that men sin in order to accomplish His purpose. And we know that the men who carried out this hideous, but divinely ordained plan, were held responsible by God. As Jesus said of Judas, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). And concerning the Jewish leaders who brought about the crucifixion, Peter said they did the deed “by lawless hands” (Acts 2:23 NKJV). Stephen later called them the “betrayers and murderers” of Jesus (Acts 7:52).
It is difficult for us to understand how a man can do God’s will through sinful behavior, and then be held responsible for his sinful actions. How can this be right? The question has been asked before, and answered by someone much more qualified than I. Paul raises this question in the familiar discussion of God’s sovereignty (Romans 9), using His dealings with Pharaoh as an example:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout all the earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” (Romans 9:17-19).
These two questions (better understood as hypothetical protests) could be stated like this: “If God’s will is accomplished through the sinful behavior of men like the Pharaoh, then why does God still hold them responsible for their sin? After all, wouldn’t it have been impossible, in God’s providence, for Pharaoh to resist God’s eternal purpose and not sin as he did? And if it were impossible, in God’s providence, for Pharaoh not to sin, how can God rightly judge him for his sin?”
Here is Paul’s answer to that question:
On the contrary, who are you, O man, to answer back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (vv. 20-21).
Notice that Paul makes no attempt to deny that God does exactly what this hypothetical protester is complaining about Him doing. He simply affirms that God has the right to do as He pleases. In fact, in the way he answers, Paul affirms that God carries out His will through the sinful actions of men. And he affirms that God does hold them responsible for those same sins—sins which are admittedly, in a providential sense, according to God’s will and impossible to avoid.
Paul doesn’t try to soften this truth by explaining it in more acceptable terms, or by merely remaining silent about a difficult truth. He boldly tells the hypothetical protester, who does not prefer to see God the way Paul has presented Him, that it is not his place to question God. It is as if Paul is saying, “Stop telling God what He may or may not do with His clay!”
Solomon certainly knew of God’s dealings with Joseph’s brothers and the Pharaoh, yet he acknowledged the providence of God when he wrote:
The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).
The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1).
All of this leads to a very important question: By this understanding of providence, am I implying that God is “the author of evil?” If I mean that He Himself sins, participates in sinful behavior, or personally tempts men to sin (cf. James 1:13-14), then I have spoken foolishly and I am to be corrected. But my intent is to acknowledge that God, in His providence, is the Author (so to speak) of everything (Romans 11:36; Ephesians 1:11). He exercises meticulous providence, not by merely responding well to tragic events and sinful actions, but by actually determining that they should occur and bringing them to pass as part of His sovereign and perfect plan, while remaining blameless Himself.
In our quest for knowledge, we might ask how a holy God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to sin? How did God move Joseph’s brothers to sinfully sell him into slavery? How did God incite David to sinfully number his armies? How did God ensure that men would sinfully crucify Jesus exactly as He had purposed? Even more importantly, how did He accomplish all of this while remaining righteous and upright Himself? Frankly, I do not know. We have not been given this knowledge in the Scriptures. And as John Calvin once said, “When God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.” Rather than speculating, we must simply rest assured, based on the consistent testimony of God’s Word, that God remains morally blameless, while His human instruments bear the full weight of responsibility for their sins.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33).
All for Our Good
Romans 8:28-39 is the Christian’s precious jewel in understanding and appreciating God’s providence. The passage begins:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (v. 28).
The knowledge of God’s providential ordering and directing of every event, decision, and action, brings great peace to the believer. Whatever pain he feels, whatever difficulties he may face, whatever persecution he endures, whatever losses he mourns, he has hope in the promise that God is causing it all to work together for his good.
As one way of understanding this, imagine a very large and beautiful tapestry hanging on a wall, all woven with black and white thread. The scene created is exquisite, and from a short distance away, the beauty is evident in the way the shades blend together. But as you move closer and closer, you begin to lose sight of the whole scene. When you get right up next to the tapestry, pressing your eye into one particular place, all you can see is one shade, perhaps black. From your vantage point, there is no beauty, only darkness.
In God’s wisdom, some Christians seem to spend their lives “in the black.” It seems that suffering is their lot in life. Others prosper and enjoy a life of relative ease. Why the difference? Only God knows. But He has given all believers the promise that He is causing all things to work together for their good. Because of this, no matter what our circumstances, we can thank God for what He is doing, even when life hurts. We are all, in a sense, buried in the cloth of that tapestry, at one place or another, as we make our way through life. But we trust that in God’s providence, all is for our good.
All for His Glory
Clearly, God’s purpose with Pharaoh was to glorify Himself. Throughout the Scriptures, His powerful works in Egypt are frequently mentioned as a stimulus for praise. And in Romans 9, Paul affirms God’s sovereignty and providence as the Potter who uses His clay for His glory:
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:22-24).
God will be glorified in all that He does. He is a God of many attributes, all of which are good and perfect. He puts them all on display for men to see: His wrath, His power, His justice, His grace, His love and His mercy. And being the sovereign Ruler of the universe, He will ensure that He is glorified through every display of His attributes and character.
Pharaoh’s life, providentially ordered by God, did not serve to glorify God for His mercy as much as it did for His wrath and power. Paul’s life, also providentially ordered by God, did not serve to glorify God for His justice and wrath, but rather for His grace and mercy. And so it is, one way or the other, with every person. Every believer has been predestined to adoption as God’s child, according to the good pleasure of His will, “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6). On the other hand, concerning the destruction of the wicked city of Sidon the Lord declares:
Behold, I am against you, O Sidon;
And I will be glorified in your midst;
Then they will know that I am the Lord,
When I execute judgments in her,
And I will manifest My holiness in her
In God’s providence, He is fully glorified through the ultimate end of believers and unbelievers alike, although in strikingly different ways. “The Lord has made all for Himself, yes, even the wicked for the day of doom” (Proverbs 16:4 NKJV). And it is not only people who serve to bring Him glory. Every event in nature serves the same ultimate purpose. A beautiful sunset and a hurricane can be contrasted in the same way. One serves to glorify God for His ability to create and display incredible beauty. The other serves to glorify Him for His awesome power and destructive capability. Even “The beasts of the field will glorify Me,” the Lord says, “because I have given waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . ” (Isaiah 43:20).
All creation will glorify the Lord, “For from Him and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
In part 2, we will examine ways in which Christians commonly speak of God’s providence. Even among those who hold a biblical understanding, unbiblical expressions are often used. If our highest purpose is to glorify God, then we must take care to speak in ways that will bring Him glory.