When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
Psalm 8 is a beautiful meditation on the providence of God. David proclaims the works of God’s hands as evidence of His glory and of His care toward man.
What is God’s Providence?
Wilhelmus a Brakel calls providence “a divine power” (see TCRS, 1:11, p331).
The Westminster Larger Catechism explains it this way:
Q.18. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.
So we learn from this that God’s providence has a quality (it is holy, wise, and powerful), it is a particular action (preserving, governing, and ordering) and it has a purpose (the glory of God). Paul states this doctrine succinctly in Romans 11:36: “For from Him, and through Him, and in Him all things exist”. In commenting on this verse, William Ames says:
…causes have a triple reason: (1) the causes of procreating: “from Him…all things exist”; (2) the causes of preserving and directing “through Him…all things exist”; and (3) the final causes (causae finalis), or the causes of His grace: “in Him all things exist.” – A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, Lord’s Day 10
In his Body of Divinity, James Ussher proves that God providentially works from Scripture (Matthew 10:30; Proverbs 16:33) and from Reason. He says:
- The agreement of things which are most contrary in the World, and which would ocnsume one another if they were not hindered by the Providence of God.
- The subjection of many Men and Women unto one Person, both in Commonwealths and Families.
- The means of our preservation and nourishment. For meat, drink, and clothing, being void of heat and life, could not preserve the lif eof Man, and continue heat in him, unless there were a special Providence of God to give virtue unto them.
- Those beasts that are hurtful unto man, though they increase more, and no Man kill them, yet are fewer than those that are profitable unto Man.
- The feeding of the young Ravens in the Nest, when the Dam forsaketh them.
- The hatching of the Ostriches Egg.
- The Lord hath so disposed of the wild Beasts, that they go abroad in the night time to seek their Prey; and lie in their Dens in the day time, that Men may go abroad to their work, Psalm. 104:22,23.
- God does preserve his Church from the Devil and the Wicked; so that though they be stronger than it, yet they cannot hurt it.
We see in Scripture that Providence is God’s activity in the world. Jeremiah 23:23-24 says, “Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord.”
God acts and moves to direct al things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11) to their ultimate end. We call this an action of God to distinguish it from His attributes. If we cannot make this proper distinction, we end up in pantheism.
God’s Providence is Holy and Wise
On the one hand, if we know that God is holy and wise (and He is) then we can deduce that His operations “ad extra” (e.g. outside of Himself) would also be holy and wise because what He does ought to conform to His character. Moreover, God does nothing by compulsion. He does all things freely. Thus, God is not bound to do that which is unholy. He only ever does what He desires to do and all that He does is holy.
God Preserves, Governs, and Orders All Things
We distinguish God’s government from God’s preservation or sustaining. God’s government refers to His action to execute His eternal decree (Eph 1:11). We say that, according to the natural activity of things, God directs them all to a good end. This includes (and this is controversial) the sin of man. However, we distinguish God’s natural activity from man’s abuse of that activity in sin.
To better explain this, we need to understand how God preserves or sustains all things. God does not simply make us, let us figure it out on our own, all the while poking us here and there in a particular direction so His ultimate decrees are fulfilled. Rather, we believe that God is actively involved in sustaining all things in their existence. God’s immediate, energizing power works to preserve man’s being and existence. Referring back to the quote from Ussher above (about food, drink, and clothing), what he means is that God doesn’t simply provide food, drink, and clothing. He also gives to man the energy from that food, from that drink, and heat from the clothing to sustain himself. Were God to stop doing this for one moment, we would be reduced to nothing. As the Scripture says, in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We do not exist apart from God’s preservation.
Yet, a further point needs to be made. A Brakel notes that “it is an irrefutable principle that the manner of operation proceeds from the manner of existence. Since each creature is dependent upon God in its existence, it is likewise dependent in its motions.” (p.338). If we are dependent on God for our existence, by consequence we are dependent on Him for our operations within the world. We see this attested clearly in Scripture, and if it were not so, many prayers would be meaningless. The psalmist cries “Create in me a clean heart”(51:12), and “Keep the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). These prayers only make sense if the very actions we do are energized by God and that our actions cooperate with His (when we say cooperate, we mean God’s energizing power concurs with the operations of His creatures, not that God only influences our actions to some degree).
Therefore, returning to the question of God’s energizing power to preserve all things and how that relates to man’s sin. God is the efficient cause of all the activities of man. He is also the first cause. However, man is the subjective or secondary cause, because he produces all of his activities from within himself. As Christ says, from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Whatever man does is the formal cause, it is the form that the action he does takes.
Therefore, God may move first and preserve all the actions of man throughout, yet it is not as if by compulsion, for man’s activities are still a result of the free exercise of his will. God actively permits sin, as a Brakel says, “not relative to sin as proper object itself, but relative to circumstances” (p.344). God may provide the energizing power to a man’s act; however, the man is nonetheless responsible for the act, for he freely chose to do it. God would have preserved the man’s actions whether the man intended that which is good or that which is evil. When man does that which is evil or that which is good, it is either a good use of God’s providential activity or a misuse. This is clear from Genesis 50:20,
Despite all of that, since we know God governs all things, we know that He directs them to a good end. We may also praise God that He does restrain the sins of men, however, for we know by the fact that God determines not to withhold (Romans 1:24; 2 Chronicles 32:31).
God Does All Things for the Sake of His Glory
God preserves and governs all things by His providence for the sake of His own glory. All actions that occur in this world are directed by God to His ultimate purpose and end. All matters great or small, good or bad, are directed to the ultimate purpose of God: that He would be glorified. Many of the Reformed scholastic were fond of speaking of providence by analogy of the Sun to the light. Just as the Sun shines on the good and bad, and the light goes to the most majestic of cathedrals and the meanest of hovels in our world, God’s providential hand works in the actions of kings and babies, crack houses and churches, in the movement of the waves and the sounds of a cello.
When I am at the dinner table with my children, we work through the Catechism for Younger Children. The third question asks why God made man and everything in the world. My daughter exclaims over our evening meal, sauces and puddings running off her face, “For His…own glory!” The truth of God is displayed powerfully through the lips of my young children, who though framed so fragile and with so little knowledge of the cares and dangers of this world, are energized by the food given to them, are protected by a mother and father whom God has given to them, who live in a home whose heat provides warmth and life by the power of God.
O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!