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PROVIDENCE. The universal providence of God is the basic assumption of all Scripture. As in English, the corresponding Hebrew and Greek words such as rā’âh (Gen.22.8; 1Sam.16.1) and problepō (Heb.11.40) in their contexts mean far more than mere foresight or foreknowledge. The meaning is “prearrangement.” As used historically the theological term “providence” means nothing short of “the universal sovereign rule of God.”

The definition of the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism expresses the view of all Bible-believing Christians: “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” Divine providence is the outworking of the divine decrees, which are “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph.1.11).

The biblical doctrine of divine providence does not imply a mechanistic or fatalistic view of the processes of the world or of human life. In a more extended treatise on this subject, secondary causes, and the relation between human responsibility and divine sovereignty would have to be canvassed. For the present purposes it must suffice to quote what are possibly the best available brief creedal statements on these matters:

“Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

“God’s providence includes the permission of all...sins of angels and men, and that not a bare permission, but such permission as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his holy ends; yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (Westminster Confession, ch. V., paragraphs II and IV).

“Second causes” are the ordinary forces and events of nature that God usually employs to accomplish his purposes.

That God’s providence includes his decree to permit sin should not seem strange or paradoxical. One of the good features of so-called progressive education is learning by experience, and this is based on the assumption that what ought not to be is not the same as what ought not to be permitted. One of the clearest biblical illustrations of this principle is found in Joseph’s words to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen.50.20).

It is customary to distinguish special providence from general providence. The former term refers to God’s particular care over the life and activity of the believer. “We know that, in reference to those who love God, God works all things together for good” (Rom.8.28, author’s tr.). “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm” (Ps.37.23; see Phil.1.28). “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [daily needs] will be given to you as well” (Matt.6.33). The entire Book of Job is devoted to the temporal sufferings of a godly man under divine providence. Heb.11.40 teaches that providence, for men of faith, includes something far better than experiences of this life.

General providence includes the government of the entire universe, but especially of the affairs of men. “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Deut.10.14). “The Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples...” (Deut.32.8; see also Neh.9.6; Dan.4.35).

God by his providence is revealed as “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb.1.3); “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt.5.45, see Ps.68.9; Acts.14.15-Acts.14.17; Rom.1.20).

Not only is the general course of nature sustained by God’s providence, but the moral order and its logical consequences are as well: “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Gal.6.7-Gal.6.8). Divine providence sustaining the moral order is the principal theme of the Book of Proverbs.

The distinction between God’s immanent or natural action and his transcendent or supernatural action is of supreme importance in the understanding of the doctrine of providence. See the article on Miracles. The case of Christianity depends entirely on the miracles of the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ. Nevertheless, as the article on miracles shows, godly faith has always existed in a world in which there are long periods of time, even in Bible history, in which God does not choose to give “signs” or display miracles as evidences. It is imperative that we learn to see the glory of God in the regular works of providence as well as in the miraculous.

Christians who are scientists sometimes complain that some Fundamentalists tend to invoke the supernatural whenever there are gaps in scientific knowledge. The latter are, of course, embarrassed when scientists fill in the gaps with well-accredited facts. A mere “God of the Gaps” idea may be as harmful as mechanistic pantheism. The genuinely miraculous in Christianity is not dimmed but rather magnified by recognition of God’s providential faithfulness in the regular processes of nature.——JOB

PROVIDENCE (Lat. providentia). Providence concerns God’s support, care, and supervision of all creation, from the moment of the first creation to all the future into eternity. Jesus Christ said, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). Providence is God’s activity through His unlimited power and knowledge to fulfill His purpose for the whole creation, including man. “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy” (Westminster Confession of Faith. V. i).

Two points are to be observed in the study of providence. God’s control is all-inclusive and certain, yet God does not violate the freedom of rational and moral creatures. It may be hard to understand how this can be because there are no personal experiences to which one can compare God’s providential working, but the Scriptures clearly teach both these points. Joseph insisted that God had sent him to Egypt, and indeed this confidence had doubtless supported him through all his adversity. Yet he said “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen 45:4). Isaiah likewise declared that God sovereignly brought the Assyrian invader to punish Israel, yet the Assyrian came in the pride of his own heart and therefore would be punished when he had finished God’s assigned task (Isa 10:6, 7, 12). The Pharaoh of Moses’ day was raised up by God to show God’s power (Exod 9:16). Yet Pharaoh acted in his own human will and pride. The section, Exodus 5 to 11, has an interesting alternation between the statement that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Both were true. Both divine foreordination and human freedom are plainly stated also in the prayer of the Early Church:

There were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27, 28).

Very specifically Peter said that Christ “being delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Creation and providence.

It is easy to confuse creation and providence, for both deal with the activity of God. Creation is the bringing into existence of something new that had no prior being or existence. Providence is God’s activity in relation to what was created previously. Creation is a single act of God, whereas providence is the continuing activity of God in relation to His whole creation. Providence embraces God’s activity not merely in regard to the big things in the universe, but also in regard to every single item, no matter how small or ultra microscopic it may be. Providence affects not only the “material” universe and the “inanimate” objects in the universe, but includes all forms of life, esp. man. The human mind sees problems in the relationship between God’s activity in providence and man’s free agency and between God’s providence and moral evil and sin, but these will be discussed below. However difficult it may be for men to understand, God’s providence extends over every single item in the whole universe.

How should one classify every “new” item that appears in the universe, either apart from human agency or as the product of the ingenuity of man? Just where is the line between creation and providence?

On the whole it seems best to restrict creation to the first creation of the universe and everything in it, including all energy, atoms, and subatomic particles, and to regard everything that has happened since the creation under the realm of providence.

Scope of providence.

A basic concept of providence is that all “chance” is ruled out of the universe. Nothing happens by chance. Chance implies that there is a realm in which even God cannot enter. Such a view denies the sovereignty of God over the whole universe. Even the casting of lots was not by chance, according to Scripture, it was under the disposition of God (Prov 16:33).

The idea of blind fate is also excluded in the light of the Word of God. Men are not under the control of mechanistic forces that operate in the whole universe inexorably, as the atheist would claim, but are in the hands of a loving heavenly Father who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to die in the place of His people on the cross of Calvary.

Providence and means.

In the created universe there are objects brought into a real existence by God whether their inner essence be spiritual or energistic, which are relatively separate from God though subject to His constant sustaining power and control. God, in the exercise of providence, usually uses created objects and forces as His means of accomplishing His eternal purposes. God, however, is not bound to act through such means. God acts independently of all means when it pleases Him so to act.

Secondary causes or natural laws are merely the properties with which the Creator has endowed matter and force. God

endowed matter with these forces and ordained that they should be uniform...He is independent of them. He can change, annihilate, or suspend them at pleasure. He can operate with or without them. The “Reign of Law” must not be made to extend over Him who made the laws (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [1871], Vol. 1, p. 607).

The Scripture speaks of “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor 12:12), which may be classed under the term “miracles.” Strictly speaking, however, it seems better to limit the term “miracle” to the change in the mode of God’s activity apart from means. For example, in the Exodus from Egypt God “drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night” (Exod 14:21). God used means (the wind) to accomplish His purpose. On the other hand, the changing of the water into wine (John 2:1-11) was a miracle since it was accomplished without means, for the water in the jars was not a means in the production of the wine.

Providence and prayer.

In the relationship between providence and man’s free agency, what is the relationship between providence and the answers God gives to prayers? The problem is this: If God has from all eternity foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, as the Bible teaches, then both the prayers and their affirmative answers must also have been foreordained. In that case, why should men pray since praying cannot change God’s plan or persuade Him to do what would be contrary to His eternal plan.

The answer to this problem is in the fact that the individual steps producing both the prayer and the answer are also foreordained. The one making the prayer is conditioned by God’s Holy Spirit in providence so that at the given moment he desires to pray for the particular object for which the prayer is uttered. The prayer is uttered freely by the individual, but the Holy Spirit conditions the soul so that the desire to pray that prayer freely arises in the mind of that individual. Experience indicates that prayers are answered by God and men are commanded by Christ to pray. The prayers of believers are heard by God and are answered affirmatively if they are according to the will of God. God’s providence supervises the whole process of the prayer and its answer, without infringing on the freedom of the one who prays.

Providence and free agency.

Men are not created as automatons. They have freedom to act according to their natures, but that does not mean that they can defeat the plans, or the providence, of God. Although they act freely, the springs of their desire and activity are supervised by the providence of God, so that all actions are included in His active or permissive providence. God never forces the individual to act contrary to his desire, but in His omnipotence and omniscience, God’s providential supervision acts upon the springs of the individual’s desires, so that he acts freely, but yet in accordance with the providence of God.

Providence and personal responsibility.

The question of personal responsibility is, of course, linked with the matter of free agency and God’s providence. The Word of God declares that human beings are personally responsible for their actions, both good and bad. They will be held responsible for their actions on the judgment day. Only those whose names are written in the “book of life,” will escape punishment for their evil actions (Rev 20:15). If God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, how can He justly hold man responsible for his actions?

The answer is that the Spirit of God never coerces any human being to commit sin. He simply does not prevent the evil action if God has foreordained to permit it for reasons that God alone knows. Some hints have been given as to why God permits sin. Unbelieving Assyrian kings were used to punish the Israelites for committing idolatry. That in no way excused those Assyrian kings for the wicked acts that they freely committed, though those acts were overruled to further God’s plan (Isa 10).

In the case of God’s elect individuals, the Holy Spirit regenerates them and so changes their natures that they freely repent and believe in Christ as Savior and Lord, and as an expression of their redeemed natures, they perform acts that please God. Those free acts are not forced by the Holy Spirit, but are committed because the child of God wants to please his Savior and God. Thus the free acts of both the elect and the nonelect are governed by the providence of God without taking away the freedom of action according to their natures.

Providence and sin and evil.

The Scriptures forbid regarding God as the author of sin and evil, however difficult it may be for human minds to reconcile the permission of sin and moral evil with the goodness of God. God has not revealed all the reasons for the permission of sin and evil, but a glimpse of the divine motives may be discerned in one of the greatest sins ever committed by man: the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot. Judas was a man chosen by Christ Himself to be one of His twelve most intimate companions. He was even given supernatural powers (Mark 3:14, 15). For over three years he accompanied Christ. The other disciples thought highly enough of him to appoint him as treasurer of the Twelve. Apparently they did not suspect his evil nature, even on the night of the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper. Yet Judas sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. The providence of God permitted this betrayal as a necessary link in the redemption of God’s people by the death of Christ on the cross. That was the motive for God’s permitting one of the worst sins in history. If God could permit that sin—one of the greatest sins in history—can He not be trusted (though He condemns and usually punishes sin in this life) with the sins of even His elect, which He permits for reasons that are not fully understood? Evidently He allows those sins to train the sinner in humility or to prepare him to help others similarly tempted, but that in no way condones the sin or excuses the sinner. He permits the sins of the non-Christian, even though those sins are links in the chain that drags the sinner into eternal death.

Providence and eternal punishment.

“How can a good God condemn any of His creatures to eternal punishment?” is the question that unbelievers and some Christians ask in bewilderment. There is no completely satisfactory answer to this riddle, but there are several observations that can be made. Men are in the hands not of blind fate but of a loving heavenly Father, who so loved men that He came in the person of God the Son to bear on the cross the punishment due His people. Certainly one can trust Him where he cannot fully understand the reasons for what God most certainly does—that He punishes unrepentant sinners eternally. No one who goes into eternal punishment ever sincerely wanted salvation through believing in Christ alone for salvation. Even those who never heard of Christ, who will be judged according to the light of conscience, freely admit that they do not live up to the light they have. The picture sometimes presented of a mass of unsaved people stretching up their hands to Christ in seeking salvation, is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Christ Himself said: “him who comes to me I will not cast out” (John 6:37). The unbeliever, therefore, gets exactly what he deserves, for no one was ever refused salvation if he sincerely wanted it in the right way. The fact is that he never had a sincere desire to repent and be saved through faith in Christ alone. God’s providence simply leaves him alone, so that he willingly rejects salvation and so condemns himself to eternal punishment.

Providence and repentance.

Since the fall of man every human being is dead in sin except when God’s Holy Spirit regenerates him and enables him to do good works and think good thoughts. The consciousness of being a sinner leads to true repentance from sin and to faith in Christ as the offer of salvation is accepted. Repentance and faith are like the two sides of a coin; they are inseparable. Only those whom the Holy Spirit regenerates can freely repent of their sins and believe in Christ to salvation. God’s providential control thus surrounds the elect individual so that he freely repents and believes in Christ for salvation. At the time he repents, the gift of faith is bestowed by the Holy Spirit. In the providence of God, the Holy Spirit acts upon the springs of his desires, to enable him to hate sin and to love his Redeemer, and want to please Him by living a good life.

Providence and grace.

What is the relationship between providence and grace? The distinction may be made between “common” grace and “special” grace.

Common grace is a term used for the beneficent providential care that God bestows upon all men, evil men as well as good. God sends His rain “on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). Food and other physical blessings are all included under common grace. Some races and nations and individuals are more blessed than others, according to the good pleasure of God, but common grace in the providence of God has no necessary connection with salvation, or “special” grace. All grace of God is the unmerited favor of God.

“Special” grace concerns only God’s elect children. All the blessings that are inherent in salvation are a part of God’s “special” grace to the elect. From regeneration to glorification, when Christians will see Christ in glory and be made like Him, God’s special providential grace surrounds them, and through the work of the Holy Spirit enables their growth in sanctification while they are bathed in the providential care of God.


God’s providence embraces all of life and the whole universe. It extends from the greatest to the least in creation. It concerns the sinner and the saint. It is impossible to escape, for it encompasses all of life.


J. Calvin, Institutes, I; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, I; W. G. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, I; R. L. Dabney, Theology; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (1946); G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (1952).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)





1. Divine Providence in the Old Testament Scriptures

(1) Providence in the Pentateuch

(2) The Historical Books of the Old Testament

(3) The Psalms

(4) The Wisdom Literature

(5) The Book of Job

(6) The Prophetical Writings

2. Divine Providence in the New Testament

(1) The Synoptic Gospels

(2) The Johannine Writings

(3) The Book of Ac and Other New Testament History

(4) The Pauline Epistles

(5) The Petrine Epistles, and Other New Testament Writings

3. Old Testament and New Testament Doctrines of Providence Compared

(1) The New Emphasis on the Fatherhood and Love of God

(2) The Place of Christ and the Holy Spirit in Providence

(3) The New Emphasis upon Moral and Spiritual Blessings


1. Different Views of Providence Compared

(1) The Atheistic or Materialistic View

(2) The Pantheistic View

(3) The Deistic View

(4) The Theistic or Biblical View

(5) The Divine Immanence

2. The Divine Purpose and Final End of Providence

3. Special Providence

(1) Spiritual, Not Material, Good to Man the End Sought in Special Providence

(2) Special Providence and "Accidents"

(3) Special Providence as Related to Piety and Prayer

(4) Special Providence as Related to Human Cooperation

(5) General and Special Providence Both Equally Divine

4. Divine Providence and Human Free Will

(1) Divine Providence as Related to Willing Wills

(2) Divine Providence as Related to Sinful Free Will

5. Divine Providence as Related to Natural and Moral Evil

6. Evil Providentially Overruled for Good

7. Interpreting Providence

8. Conclusion


I. Providence Defined.

The word "provide" (from Latin providere) means etymologically "to foresee." The corresponding Greek word, pronoia, means "forethought." Forethought and foresight imply a future end, a goal and a definite purpose and plan for attaining that end. The doctrine of final ends is a doctrine of final causes, and means that that which is last in realization and attainment is first in mind and thought. The most essential attribute of rational beings is that they act with reference to an end; that they act not only with thought but with forethought. As, therefore, it is characteristic of rational beings to make preparation for every event that is foreseen or anticipated, the word "providence" has come to be used less in its original etymological meaning of foresight than to signify that preparation care and supervision which are necessary to secure a desired future result. While all rational beings exercise a providence proportioned to their powers, yet it is only when the word is used with reference to the Divine Being who is possessed of infinite knowledge and power that it takes on its real and true significance. The doctrine of divine providence, therefore, has reference to that preservation care and government which God exercises over all things that He has created in order they may accomplish the ends for which they were created.

"Providence is the most comprehensive term in the language of theology. It is the background of all the several departments of religious truth, a background mysterious in its commingled brightness and darkness. It penetrates and fills the whole compass of the relations of man with his Maker. It connects the unseen God with the visible creation, and the visible creation with the work of redemption, and redemption with personal salvation, and personal salvation with the end of all things. It carries our thoughts back to the supreme purpose which was in the beginning with God, and forward to the foreseen end and consummation of all things, while it includes between these the whole infinite variety of the dealings of God with man" (W. B. Pope, Compendium of Christian Theology, I, 456).

II. Different Spheres of Providential Activity Distinguished.

The created universe may be conveniently divided, with reference divine providence, into three departments: first, the inanimate or physical universe, which is conserved or governed by God according to certain uniform principles called the laws of Nature; secondly, animate existence, embracing the vegetable and animal world, over which God exercises that providential care which is necessary to sustain the life that He created; and thirdly, the rational world, composed of beings who, in addition to animate life, are possessed of reason and moral free agency, and are governed by God, not necessitatively, but through an appeal to reason, they having the power to obey or disobey the laws of God according to the decision of their own free wills. This widespread care and supervision which God exercises over His created universe is commonly designated as His general providence which embraces alike the evil and the good, in addition to which there is a more special and particular providence which He exercises over and in behalf of the good, those whose wills are in harmony with the divine will. III. Biblical Presentation of the Doctrine of Providence.

The word "providence" is used only once in the Scriptures (Ac 24:2), and here it refers, not to God, but to the forethought and work of man, in which sense it is now seldom used. (See also Ro 13:14, where the same Greek word is translated "provision.") While, however, the Biblical use of the word calls for little consideration, the doctrine indicated by the term "providence" is one of the most significant in the Christian system, and is either distinctly stated or plainly assumed by every Biblical writer. The Old Testament Scriptures are best understood when interpreted as a progressive revelation of God’s providential purpose for Israel and the world. Messianic expectations pervade the entire life and literature of the Hebrew people, and the entire Old Testament dispensation may not improperly be regarded as the moral training and providential preparation of the world, and especially of the chosen people, for the coming Messiah. In the apocryphal "Book of Wisdom" the word "providence" is twice used (Wisd 14:3; 17:2) in reference to God’s government of the World. Rabbinical Judaism, according to Josephus, was much occupied with discussing the relation of divine providence to human free will. The Sadducees, he tells us, held an extreme view of human freedom, while the Essenes were believers in absolute fate; the Pharisees, avoiding these extremes, believed in both the overruling providence of God and in the freedom and responsibility of man (Ant., XIII, v, 9; XVIII, i, 3; BJ, II, viii, 14). See Pharisees. The New Testament begins with the announcement that the "kingdom of heaven is at hand," which declaration carries along with it the idea of a providential purpose and design running through the preceding dispensation that prepared for the Messiah’s coming. But the work of Christ is set forth in the New Testament, not only as the culmination of a divine providence that preceded it, but as the beginning of a new providential order, a definite and far-reaching plan, for the redemption of the world, a forethought and plan so comprehensive that it gives to the very idea of divine providence a new, larger and richer meaning, both intensively and extensively, than it ever had before. The minutest want of the humblest individual and the largest interests of the world-wide kingdom of God are alike embraced within the scope of divine providence as it is set forth by Christ and the apostles.

1. Divine Providence in the Old Testament Scriptures:

(1) Providence in the Pentateuch.

The opening sentence of the Scriptures, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," is a noble and majestic affirmation of God’s essential relationship to the origin of all things. It is followed by numerous utterances scattered throughout the sacred volume that declare that He who created also preserves and governs all that He created. But the Israelite nation was from the beginning of its history, in the Hebrew conception, the special object of God’s providence and care, though it was declared that Yahweh’s lordship and government extended over all the earth (Ex 8:22). The Deuteronomist (De 10:14) uses language which implies that divine possession of all things in heaven and earth carries along with it the idea of divine providence and control; and he also regards Israel as Yahweh’s peculiar possession and special care (De 32:8).

This special providence that was over the elect nation as a whole was also minute and particular, in that special individuals were chosen to serve a providential purpose in the making of the nation, and were divinely-guided in the accomplishment of their providential mission. Thus Abraham’s providential place in history is set forth in Ne 9:7,8. Jacob acknowledges the same providential hand in his life (Ge 31:42; 48:15). The life of Joseph abounds in evidences of a divine providence (Ge 45:5,7; 50:20). The whole life-history of Moses as it is found in the Pentateuch is a study in the doctrine of divine providence. Other lives as set forth in these early narratives may be less notable, but they are not less indebted to divine providence for what they are and for what they accomplish for others. Indeed, as Professor Oehler remarks, "The whole Pentateuchal history of revelation is nothing but the activity of that divine providence which in order to the realization of the divine aim, is at once directed to the whole, and at the same time proves itself efficacious in the direction of the life of separate men, and in the guiding of all circumstances" (Old Testament Theology).

(2) The Historical Books of the Old Testament.

In a sense all the books of the Old Testament are historical in that they furnish material for writing a history of the people of Israel. See History of Israel. The Pentateuch, the Poetical Books, the Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, all furnish material for writing Old Testament history; but there is still left a body of literature, including the books from Joshua to Esther that may with peculiar fitness designated as historical. These books are all, in an important sense, an interpretation and presentation of the facts of Hebrew history in their relation to divine providence. The sacred historians undertake to give something of a divine philosophy of history, to interpret in a religious way the facts of history, to point out the evils of individual and national sin and the rewards and blessings of righteousness, and to show God’s ever-present and ever-guiding hand in human history--that He is not a silent spectator of human affairs, but the supreme moral Governor of the universe, to whom individuals and nations alike owe allegiance. To the Hebrew historian every event in the life of the nation has a moral significance, both because of its relation to God and because of its bearing on the providential mission and testing of Israel as the people of God. The Book of Judges, which covers the "dark ages" of Bible history, and is an enigma to many in the study of God’s hand in history, shows how far God must needs condescend at times in His use of imperfect and even sensual men through whom to reveal His will and accomplish His work in the world. While therefore He condescends to use as instruments of His providence such men as Samson and Jephthah, it is never through these that He does His greatest work, but through an Abraham, a Joseph, a Moses, an Isaiah, through men of lofty moral character. And this is one of the most notable lessons of Old Testament history if it be studied as a revelation of God’s providential methods and instrumentalities. Among these historical writers none has given clearer and stronger expression to God’s providential relation to the physical world as its preserver and to the moral world as its Divine Governor than the author of Nehemiah. "Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all. .... Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to shew them light, and the way wherein they should go. Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them" (Ne 9:6,19,20 the King James Version). His words reflect the views that were entertained by all the Old Testament historains as to God’s hand in the government and guidance of the nation. Hebrew history, because of the divine promises and divine providence, is ever moving forward toward the Messianic goal.

(3) The Psalms.

The poets are among the world’s greatest religious teachers, and theology of the best poets generally represents the highest and purest faith that is found among a people. Applying this truth to the Hebrew race, we may say that in the Psalms and the Book of Job we reach the high-water mark of the Old Testament revelation as to the doctrine of divine providence. The Psalmist’s God is not only the Creator and Preserver of all things, but is a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God, a Being so full of tender mercy and loving-kindness that we cannot fail to identify Him with the God whom Christ taught us to call "our Father." Nowhere else in the entire Scriptures, except in the Sermon on the Mount, can we find such a full and clear exhibition of the minute and special providence of God over His faithful and believing children as in the Psalms--notably such as Psalms 91; 103; 104 and 139. Ps 105 traces God’s hand in providential and gracious guidance through every stage of Israel’s wondrous history. Thanksgiving and praise for providential mercies and blessings abound in Psalms 44; 66; 78; 85; 138. While the relation of God’s power and providence to the physical universe and to the material and temporal blessings of life is constantly asserted in the Psalms, yet it is the connection of God’s providence with man’s ethical and spiritual nature, with righteousness and faith and love, that marks the highest characteristic of the Psalmist’s revelation of the doctrine of providence. That righteousness and obedience are necessary conditions and accompaniments of divine providence in its moral aspects and results is evidenced by numerous declarations of the psalmists (1:6; 31:19,20; 74:12; 84:11; 91:1; 125:2). This thought finds happiest expression in Ps 37:23 the King James Version: "The steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord, and he delighteth in his way." The inspired poets make it plain that the purpose of divine providence is not merely to meet temporal wants and bring earthly blessings, but to secure the moral good of individuals and nations.

(4) The Wisdom Literature.

"There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will."

(5) The Book of Job.

The greatest of all the inspired contributions to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, the Book of Job, demands special consideration. It is the one book in the Bible that is devoted wholly to a discussion of divine providence. The perplexities of a thoughtful mind on the subject of divine providence and its relation to human suffering have nowhere in the literature of the world found stronger and clearer expression than in this inspired drama which bears the name of its unique and marvelous hero, Job. Job represents not only a great sufferer, but an honest doubter: he dared to doubt theology of his day, a theology which he had himself doubtless believed until experience, the best of all teachers, taught him its utter inadequacy to explain the deepest problems of human life and of divine providence. The purpose of this book in the inspired volume seems to be to correct the prevailing theology of the day with regard to the subject of Sin and suffering in their relation to divine providence. There is no more deplorable and hurtful error that a false theology could teach than that all suffering in this world is a proof of sin and a measure of one’s guilt (see Affliction). It is hard enough for the innocent to suffer. To add to their suffering by them that it is all because they are awful sinners, even though their hearts assure them that they are not, is to lay upon the innocent a burden too grievous to be borne. The value in the inspired Canon of a book written to reveal the error of such a misleading doctrine as this cannot easily be over-estimated. The invaluable contribution which this book makes to the Biblical doctrine of providence is to be found, not in individual and detached sayings, striking and suggestive as some of these may be, but rather in the book as a whole. Statements concerning God’s general abound in this inspired drama--such these, for example: "Who knoweth not in all these, that the hand of Yahweh hath wrought this, in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?" (Job 12:9,10) ; "Who hath given him a charge over the earth? or who hath disposed the whole world? .... He shall break in pieces mighty men without number, and set others in their stead" (Job 34:13,14 the King James Version).

But the special contribution of the Book of Job to the doctrine of divine providence, as already indicated, is to set forth its connection with the fact of sin and suffering. Perplexed souls in all ages have been asking: If God be all-powerful and all-good, why should there be any suffering in a world which He created and over which He rules? If He cannot prevent suffering is He omnipotent? If He can, but will not prevent suffering, is He infinitely good? Does the book solve the mystery? We cannot claim that it does. But it does vindicate the character of God, the Creator, and of Job, the moral free agent under trial. It does show the place of suffering in a moral world where free agents are forming Character; it does show that perfect moral character is made, not by divine omnipotence, but by trial, and that physical suffering serves a moral end in God’s providential government of men and nations. While the book does not clear the problem of mystery, it does show how on the dark background of a suffering world the luminous holiness of divine and human character may be revealed. The picture of this suffering man of Uz, racked with bodily pains and irritated by the ill-spoken words of well-meaning friends, planting himself on the solid rock of his own conscious rectitude, and defying earth and hell to prove him guilty of wrong, and knowing that his Vindicator liveth and would come to his rescue--that is an inspired picture that will make every innocent sufferer who reads it stronger until the end of time.

See also JOB, BOOK OF.

(6) The Prophetical Writings.

Nowhere in all literature is the existence and supremacy of a moral and providential order in the world more clearly recognized thin in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. These writings are best understood when interpreted as the moral messages and passionate appeals of men who were not only prophets and preachers of righteousness to their own times, but students and teachers of the moral philosophy of history for all time, seers, men of vision, who interpreted all events in the light of their bearing on this moral and providential order, in which divine order the Israelite nation had no small part, and over which Israel’s God was sovereign, doing "according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth." While each prophetic message takes its coloring from the political, social and moral conditions that called it forth, and therefore differs from every other message, the prophets are all one in their insistence upon the supremacy and divine authority of this moral order, and in their looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and the setting up of the Messianic kingdom as the providential goal and consummation of the moral order. They all describe in varying degrees of light and shade a coming time when One born of their own oppressed and down-trodden race should come in power and glory, and set up a kingdom of righteousness and love in the earth, into which kingdom all nations shall be ultimately gathered; and of His kingdom there shall be no end. God’s providential government of the nation was always and everywhere directed toward this Messianic goal. The language which an inspired writer puts into the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar, the heathen king, is an expression, not so much of the Gentileconception of God and His government, as it is of the faith of a Hebrew prophet concerning God’s relationship to men and nations: "He doeth according to his will in army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?" (Da 4:35). The providential blessings which the prophets promise to the people, whether to individuals or to the nation, are never a matter of mere omnipotence or favoritism, but are inseparably connected with righteous conduct and holy character. The blessings promised are mainly spiritual, but whether spiritual or material, they are always conditioned on righteousness. The Book of Isaiah is especially rich in passages that emphasize the place of moral conduct and character in God’s providential government of the world, the supreme purpose and end of which are to establish a kingdom of righteousness in the earth (Isa 33:13-16; 35:8-10; 43:2; 46:4; 54:14-17). Divine providence is both personal and national, and of each it is declared in varying terms of assurance that "Yahweh will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rearward" (Isa 52:12). Each of the major and minor prophets confirms and re-enforces the teachings of this greatest and most truly representative of all the Old Testament prophets.

2. Divine Providence in the New Testament:

(1) The Synoptic Gospels.

(2) The Johannine Writings.

John’s Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels in its mode of presenting the doctrine of providence chiefly in that it goes back to the mind and purpose of God in the very beginning (Joh 1:1-5), whereas the Synoptic Gospels simply go back to the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Both the Gospel and the Epistles of John in their presentation of divine providence place the greatest possible emphasis on divine love and filial trust, the latter rising in many places to the point of positive assurance. The Book of Revelation is a prophetic vision, in apocalyptic form, of God’s providential purpose for the future, dealing not so much with individuals as with nations and with the far-reaching movements of history extending through the centuries. God is revealed in John’s writings, not as an omnipotent and arbitrary Sovereign, but as an all-loving Father, who not only cares for His children in this life but is building for them in the world to come a house of many mansions (Joh 14:1-20).

(3) The Book of Ac and Other New Testament History.

The historical portions of the New Testament, as contained in the Acts, and elsewhere, while not eliminating or depreciating the element of human freedom in individuals and nations, yet recognize in human life and history the ever-present and all-controlling mind of that God in whom, it is declared, "we live, and move, and have our being" (Ac 17:28). The career of the first distinctive New Testament character begins with these words: "There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John" (Joh 1:6). But not only John, the forerunner, but every other individual, according to the New Testament conceptions, is a man "sent from God." The apostles conceive themselves to be such; Stephen, the martyr, was such; Paul was such (Ac 22:21). New Testament biography is a study in providentially guided lives, not omitting references to those who refuse to be so guided--for such is the power of human free agency, many who are "sent from God" refuse to go upon their divinely-appointed mission. The Day of Pentecost is the revelation of a new power in history--a revelation of the place and power which the divine-human Christ and the Holy Spirit are to have henceforth in making history--in making the character of the men and the nations whose deeds are to make history. The most potent moral force in history is to be, from the day of Pentecost on, the ascended incarnate Christ, and He is to be all the more influential in the world after His ascension, when His work shall be done through the Holy Spirit. This is the historical view of providence as connected with the person of Christ, which the New Testament historians present, and which we, after 19 centuries of Christian history, are warranted in holding more confidently and firmly even than the Christians of the 1st century could hold it; for the Christian centuries have proved it true. What God is in Nature Christ is in history. All history is becoming Christian history, thus realizing the New Testament conception of divine providence in and through Christ.

(4) The Pauline Writings.

No character of whom we have any account in Christian literature was providentially prepared for his life-work and providentially guided in accomplishing that life-work more truly than was the apostle Paul. We find, there. fore, as we would antecedently expect, that Paul’s speeches and writings abound in proofs of his absolute faith in the overruling providence of an all-wise God. His doctrine of predestination and foreordination is best understood when interpreted, not as a divine power predetermining human destiny and nullifying the human will, but as a conception of divine providence as the eternal purpose of God to accomplish an end contemplated and foreseen from the beginning, namely, the redemption of the world and the creation in and through Christ of a new and holy humanity. Every one of the Pauline Epistles bears witness to the author’s faith in a divine providence that overrules and guides the life of every soul that works in harmony with the divine will; but this providence is working to secure as its chief end, not material and temporal blessings, but the moral and spiritual good of those concerned. Paul’s teachings concerning divine providence as it concerns individuals and is conditioned on character may be found summed up in what is perhaps the most comprehensive single sentence concerning providence that was ever written: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Ro 8:28 the King James Version). Any true exposition of the New Testament doctrine of divine providence that may be given can only be an unfolding of the content of this brief but comprehensive statement. The greatest of the Pauline Epistles, that to the Romans, is a study in the divine philosophy of history, a revelation of God’s providential purpose and plan concerning the salvation, not merely of individuals, but of the nations. These purposes, as Paul views them, whether they concern individuals or the entire race, are always associated with the mediatorial ministry of Christ: "For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever" (Ro 11:36).

(5) The Petrine Epistles, and Other New Testament Writings.

3. Old Testament and New Testament Doctrines of Providence Compared:

From this brief survey of the teachings of the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures concerning the doctrine of divine providence, it will be seen that, while the New Testament reaffirms in most particulars the doctrine of divine providence as set forth in the Old Testament Scriptures, there are three particulars in which the points of emphasis are changed, and by which new and changed emphasis the doctrine is greatly enriched in the New Testament.

(1) The New Emphasis on the Fatherhood and Love of God.

The God of providence in the Old Testament is regarded as a Sovereign whose will is to be obeyed, and His leading attributes are omnipotence and holiness, whereas in the New Testament God is revealed as the heavenly Father, and His providence is set forth as the forethought and care of a father for his children. His leading attributes here are love and holiness--His very omnipotence is the omnipotence of love. To teach that God is not only a righteous Ruler to be feared and adored, but a tender and loving Father who is ever thinking of and caring for His children, is to make God lovable and turn His providence into an administration of Almighty love.

(2) The Place of Christ and the Holy Spirit in Providence.

The doctrine of providence in the New Testament is connected with the person of Christ and the administration of the Holy Spirit, in a manner that distinguishes it from the Old Testament presentation of providence as the work of the one God who was there revealed in the simple unity of His nature without distinction of persons. If it be true, as some theologians have taught, that "God the Father plans, God the Son executes, and God the Holy Ghost applies," then it would follow that providence is the work exclusively of Christ and the Holy Spirit; but this theological formula, while it has suggestive value, cannot be accepted as an accurate statement of Biblical doctrine with reference to divine providence. Christ constantly refers creation and providence to the Father. But He also said, "My Father worketh even until now, and I work" (Joh 5:17), and the New Testament writers attribute to Christ the work both of creation and providence. Thus Paul: "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (Col 1:16,17 the King James Version). Although this and other passages refer to Christ’s relation to general providence, including the government of the physical universe, yet it is only when the divine government is concerned with the redemption of a lost world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the hearts and lives of men, that the full extent of Christ’s part in divine providence can be realized. The saving and perfecting of men is the supreme purpose of providence, if it be viewed from the New Testament standpoint, which is that of Christ’s mediatorial ministry.

(3) The New Emphasis upon Moral and Spiritual Blessings.

The New Testament not only subordinates the material and temporal aspects of providence to the spiritual and eternal more than does the Old Testament, but Christ and the apostles, to an extent that finds no parallel in the Old Testament, place the emphasis of their teaching concerning providence upon man’s moral needs and eternal interests, and upon the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, the establishment of which in the hearts and lives of men is the one great object for which both the heavenly Father and His children are ceaselessly working. To be free from sin, to be holy in heart and useful in life, to love and obey God as a Father, to love and serve men as brothers--this is the ideal and the end for which, according to the New Testament, men should work and pray, and this is the end toward which God is working by His ceaseless cooperative providence.

IV. Discussion of the Contents of the Biblical Doctrine.

1. Different Views of Providence Compared:

There are four distinct conceptions of providence as it concerns God’s relation to the ongoing of the world and to man, the rational and moral free agent whom He has placed upon it, namely, the atheistic, the deistic, the pantheistic, and theistic or Biblical view. See also GOD, I, 4. The last named view can best be understood only when stated in comparison and contrast with these opposing views.

(1) The Atheistic or Materialistic View:

Atheism or materialism, stands at one extreme, affirming that there is no God, that the material universe is eternal, and that from material atoms, eternally endowed with certain properties, there have come, by a process of evolution, all existing forms of vegetable, animal and rational life. As materialism denies the existence of a personal Creator, it, of course, denies any and every doctrine of divine providence.

(2) The Pantheistic View:

Pantheism stands at the other extreme from atheism, teaching that God is everything and everything is God. The created universe is "the living garment" of God--God is the soul of the world, the universe His existence form. But God is an infinite It, not a personal Being who can express His existence in terms of selfconsciousness--I, Thou, He, Providence, according to pantheism, is simply the evolution of impersonal deity, differing from materialism only in the name which it gives to the infinite substance from which all things flow.

(3) The Deistic View:

Deism teaches that there is a God, and that He created the world, but created things do not need His presence and the exercise of His power in order to continue in existence and fulfill their functions. The material world is placed under immutable law; while man, the rational and moral free agent, is left to do as he wills. God sustains, according to deism, very much the same relation to the universe that the clock-maker does to his timepiece. Having made his clock, and wound it up, he does not interfere with it, and the longer it can run without the maker’s intervention the greater the evidence of wisdom and skill on the part of the maker. God according to deism has never wrought a miracle nor made a supernatural revelation to man. The only religion that is possible to man is natural religion; he may reason from Nature up to Nature’s God. The only value of prayer is its subjective influence; it helps us to answer our own prayers, to become and be what we are praying to be. If the Divine Being is a prayer-hearing God, He is least not a prayer-answering God. The laws of Nature constitute God’s general providence; but there is no other personal and special providence than this, according to deism. God, the deists affirm, is too great, too distant, too transcendent a Being to concern Himself with the details of creaturely existence.

(4) The Theistic or Biblical View:

The theistic or Biblical conception of providence teaches that God is not only the Creator but the Preserver of the universe, and that the preservation of the universe, no less than its creation, implies and necessitates at every moment of time an omnipotent and omnipresent personal Being. This world is not "governed by the laws of Nature," as deism teaches, but it is "governed by God according to the laws of Nature." "Law," in itself, is an impotent thing, except as it is the expression of a free will or person back of it; "the laws of Nature" are meaningless and impotent, except as they are an expression of the uniform mode, according to which God preserves and governs the world. It is customary to speak of the laws of Nature as if they were certain self-existent forces or powers governing the world. But shall we not rather say that there is no real cause except personal will--either the divine will or created wills? If this be true, then it is inconsistent to say that God has committed the government of the physical universe to "secondary causes"--that is, to the laws of Nature--and that these laws are not immediately dependent upon Him for their efficiency. The omnipresent and ever-active God is the only real force and power and cause in the universe, except as created wills may be true and real causes within their limited bounds. This view of God’s relation to the created universe serves to distinguish the Biblical doctrine of divine providence from the teachings of materialists and deists, who eliminate entirely the divine hand from the ongoing of the universe, and in its stead make a god of the "laws of Nature," and hence, have no need for a divine preserver. Biblical theism makes ample room for the presence of the supernatural and miraculous, but we must not be blind to a danger here, in that it is possible to make so much of the presence of God in the supernatural (revelation, inspiration, and miracle) as to overlook entirely His equally important and necessary presence in the natural--which would be to encourage a deistical conception of God’s relation to the world by exaggerating His transcendence at the expense of His immanence. That is the true theistic doctrine of providence which, while not undervaluing the supernatural and miraculous, yet stedfastly maintains that God is none the less present in, and necessary to, what is termed the "natural."

(5) The Divine Immanence.

This idea of God’s essential relation to the continuation of all things in existence is perhaps best expressed by the term "immanence." Creation emphasizes God’s transcendence, while providence emphasizes His immanence. Pantheism affirms God’s immanence, but denies His transcendence. Deism affirms His transcendence, but denies His immanence. Biblical theism teaches that God is both transcendent and immanent. By the term "transcendence," when applied to God, is meant that the Divine Being is a person, separate and distinct from Nature and above Nature--"Nature" being used here in its largest signification as including all created things. By the Divine Immanence is meant that God is in Nature as well as over Nature, and that the continuance of Nature is as directly and immediately dependent upon Him as the origin of Nature--indeed, by some, God’s preservation of the created universe is defined as an act of "continuous creation." By the Divine Immanence is meant something more than omnipresence, which term, in itself alone, does not affirm any causal relation between God and the thing to which He is present, whereas the term "immanence" does affirm such causal relation. By asserting the Divine Immanence, therefore, as the mode of God’s providential efficiency, we affirm that all created things are dependent upon Him for continued existence, that the laws of Nature have no efficiency apart from their Creator and Preserver, that God is to be sought and seen in all forms and phases of creaturely existence, in the natural as well as the supernatural and miraculous, that He is not only omnipresent but always and everywhere active both in the natural and the spiritual world, and that without Him neither the material atom, nor the living organism, nor the rational soul could have any being. He not only created all things, but "by him all things consist," that is, by Him all things are preserved in being.

2. The Divine Purpose and Final End of Providence:

What, then, let us ask, do the Scriptures teach as to the purpose and end of God’s providential goverment of the world? Back of this question is another: What was the divine motive and supreme thought in the creation of the universe, and what the final cause and end of all things in the mind and purpose of God? If we can think God’s thoughts after Him and discover this "final cause" of creation, with even approximate accuracy, then we shall find a principle that will illuminate at least, if it does not fully explain, the methods and mysteries of providence. We venture to affirm that the controlling thought in the mind of God in establishing this order of things, of which we are a conscious part, was to create a race of beings who should find their highest happiness by being in the highest degree holy, and who should, in proportion as they attain their highest holiness and happiness, thereby in the highest degree glorify their Creator. The Creator’s highest glory can be promoted only by such beings as are at once rational, moral, free, holy. There are unconscious, unthinking, unmoral forms of existence, but the motive and meaning of the universe is to be found, not in the lower, the physical and animal, but in the highest, in the rational and moral. The lower exists for the higher, the material and animal for the spiritual and moral. A being whose character is formed under the conditions and laws of intellectual and moral freedom is higher than any being can be that is what it is necessitatively, that is, by virtue of conditions over which it has no control. Character that is formed freely under God’s government and guidance will glorify the Creator more than anything can which is made to be what it is wholly by divine omnipotence. These things being true, it follows that God’s providence in the world will be directed primarily and ceaselessly toward developing character in free moral agents, toward reducing sin to the minimum and developing the maimum of holiness, in every way and by every means compatible with perfect moral freedom in the creature.

The possibility of sin in a world of free agents and in a state of probation is unavoidable, but to say that sin is possible does not mean that it is necessary. See Choice; Will. The final cause and end, the purpose and motive, of divine providence, then, are not the temporal, material and earthly happiness of men, but the highest ultimate moral good of free beings whose highest happiness is secured through their highest holiness--which means first, their obedience to the holy will of God as their Father, and secondly, loving and self-sacrificing service to their fellow-men. This ever-present and all-dominating moral purpose of divine providence determines its methods and explains, in part at least, what would otherwise be its mysteries. With this conception of divine providence the general trend of Biblical thought is in entire accord. In the light of Christ’s revelation of God as a holy and loving Father who regards all men as His children and whose chief concern is to develop holiness and love in those whom He loves, we may define divine providence as Infinite Wisdom, using infinite power to accomplish the ends of infinite holiness and love. The originating and determining cause of divine providence is, in the New Testament conception of it, always to be found in the love of God, while the final cause is the glory of the Father as realized in the holiness and happiness of His children.

3. Special Providence:

By the doctrine of special providence, according to the best use of that term in theological literature, is meant as already indicated, that minute care and ever-watchful supervision which God exercises over His obedient and believing children in things, both small and great, which are designed to secure their ever-increasing holiness and usefusness. God’s general providence is and must be special, in that it descends to particulars--to the minute details of creaturely existence--and is always and everywhere active. But the Scriptures teach that there is a more special care over and ordering of the lives of the spiritually good than pertains to the wicked, who have not the fear of God before their eyes. The following Scriptures set forth in unmistakable terms the doctrine of a special providence exercised by the heavenly Father over and in behalf of the righteous: "A man’s goings are established of Yahweh; and he delighteth in his way" (Ps 37:23); "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths" (Pr 3:6); "There shall no mischief happen to the righteous" (Pr 12:21); "But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt 6:33); "To them that love God all things work together for good" (Ro 8:28). The following points seem to be plainly involved in any statement of the doctrine of special providence that can claim to be faithful to the teachings of the Scriptures;

(1) Spiritual, Not Material, Good to Man the End Sought in Special Providence.

A mistaken and hurtful notion has long been prevalent to the effect that special providence is designed to secure the secular and earthly good, the material and temporal prosperity, of God’s children. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Material blessings may indeed come as a special providence to the child of God (Mt 6:33 et al.), but that "good" which all things work together to secure for them that love God is mainly spirtual good, and not financial or social, or intellectual, or temporal good, except as these may secure ultimate spiritual good. Indeed, God’s special providence make take away wealth and bring poverty in its stead in order to impart the "true riches." It may defeat rather than further one’s worldly hopes and ambitions; may bring sickness rather than health, and ever death instead of life--for sometimes a Christian can do more good by sickness or death than by health or continued life--and when that is the case, his sickness or death may well be interpreted as a special providence. "Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit." Many of the Old Testament promises do, it is true, seem to have special reference to material and temporal blessings, but we should remember that the best interpretation of these is to be found in the New Testament, where they are (as, for example, when quoted by Christ in the Temptation) interpreted as having mainly a spiritual signifigcance. When our Lord speaks of the very hairs of our heads being numbered, and declares that if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without the Father’s notice, surely we, who are of more value than many sparrows, cannot drift beyond His love and care, His words might be interpreted as teaching that God will save us from physical suffering and death; but such is not His meaning, for, in the very same context He speaks of how they to whom He thus pledges His love and care shall be persecuted and hated for His name’s sake, and how some of them shall be put to death; and yet His promise was true. God was with them in their physical sufferings, but the great blessing wherewith He blessed them was not physical, but moral and spiritual.

(2) Special Providence and "Accidents."

Another still more mistaken and hurtful notion concerning special providence is the association of it with, and the limitation of it largely to, what are called "accidents," those irregular and occasional occurrences which involve more than ordinary danger and risk to life. The popular notion of special providence associates it with a happy escape from visible dangers and serious injury, as when the house catches on fire, or the horses run away, or the train is wrecked, or the ship encounters an awful storm, or one comes in contact with contagious disease or the terrible pestilence that walketh in darkness. A happy escape from injury and death on such an occasion is popularly designated as a "special providence," and this regardless of whether the individual thus escaping is a saint or a sinner. We cannot too strongly emphasize the fact that God’s special providence is not a capricious, occasional, and irregular intervention of His love and power in behalf of His children, but involves ceaseless--yea infinite--thought and care for those that love Him, everywhere and in all the experiences of life.

(3) Special Providence as Related to Piety and Prayer.

God’s special providence is conditioned upon piety and prayer though it far transcends, in the blessings it brings, the specific requests of His children. While we may properly pray for things pertaining to our temporal and physical life with the assurance that God will answer such prayers in so far as He deems best; yet the Scriptures encourage us to make spiritual blessings the main object of our prayers. "Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness," is the essence of the New Testament teaching on this subject; but we should not overlook the fact that this divine injunction is both preceded and followed by the strongest assurances of the most minute and ceaseless provision for all our temporal and physical wants by the loving heavenly Father. "Therefore take no thought saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? .... For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you," the King James Version. In keeping with this Scripture, the poet has written:

"Make you His service your delight;

Your wants shall be His care."

But while it is true that God has promised to make our wants His care, we should remember that He has promised this only to that devout and godly number of pious, praying souls who "seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." His general providence is alike to all, by which "he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." But it is only "to them that love God" that it is promised that "all things work together for good"--and the proof of love is not in one’s profession, but in his obedience and service.

(4) Special Providence as Related to Human Cooperation.

The words of Christ concerning the heavenly Father’s watchful and loving providence do not mean that the children of God are not in any sense to take thought for food and raiment, and labor daily to obtain the necessities of life. Labor, both mental and physical, is as much a duty as prayer. The prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," does not render it unnecessary that they who offer it should work for their own daily bread. Nothing could be more hurtful to healthful Christian activity than to interpret our Lord’s insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, upon trust in the heavenly Father’s watchful providence as a justification of thoughtlessness, idleness, and improvidence; seeing that its purpose is simply to warn us against that needless and hurtful anxiety about the future which is not only inconsistent with trust in God, but which is utterly destructive of man’s best efforts in his own behalf.

(5) General and Special Providence Both Equally Divine. While the Scriptures appear to us to make a real and true distinction between God’s natural and His supernatural order, and between His general and His special providence, yet to truly pious and wisely discerning souls all is alike divine, the natural as well as the supernatural, general as well as special providence. So far as God’s faithful and loving children are concerned, general and special providence blend into one. The only real and important distinction between the two is that made by the free wills of men, by virtue of which some are in loving accord with the divine plans concerning them, and others are at enmity with God and oppose the purpose of His love concerning them. If all men were and had always been, alike trustful and loving children of the heavenly Father, there would perhaps never have been any occasion for making a distinction between the general and the special providence of God. The only distinction we should have needed to recognize in that case would have been as to the varieties of divine providence, in view of the fact that the all-loving Father would cause widely different events to happen to His different children. If anyone, therefore, is inclined to deny the distinction which we have here made between general and special providence, and prefers to affirm that there is but one general providential order over mankind in the world, that the distinction is in man and not in God’s providence, his position cannot be seriously objected to, provided he does not thereby mean that the world is governed by impersonal and immutable laws, but will affirm with clearness and confidence that the world is governed by the all-loving, all-wise, omnipresent, and everywhere-active God. For, indeed, the only thing that is really "special" and out of order is the limitation which sin imposes upon the workings of divine providence in so far as the self-will and opposition of men prevent the realization of the providential purposes of God concerning them. But, unfortunately, sin is now, and has long been, so prevalent and dominant in the world that we have come to regard God’s providence as affected and limited by it, as that which is regular and general, and His more perfect and complete providence in behalf of and over the good as the exceptional and special. But whether we call divine providence, as related to believers, "general" or "special," is of little consequence, provided we believe that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord" (Ps 37:23 the King James Version), that "all things work together for (spiritual) good to them that love God," and that to those who, duly subordinating the temporal to the spiritual, seek "first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," all things needful "shall be added" by the heavenly Father.

4. Divine Providence and Human Free Will:

The problem of divine providence has its utmost significance, not in its bearing on the laws of physical nature, but in that phase of it which concerns God’s dealings with moral agents, those creatures who may, and often do, act contrary to His will. God governs men as a father governs his children, as a king governs his free subjects; not as a machinist works his machine, or as a hypnotist controls his mesmerized victims. A father in his family and a sovereign in his realm may each do as he pleases within certain limits, and God infinitely more: "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?" (Da 4:35). He setteth up one and putteth down another. Nevertheless, even God acts within limits; He limited Himself when He created free agents. As a mere matter of power God can predetermine man’s volitions and necessitate his acts, but He can do so only by making of him a kind of rational machine, and destroying his true freedom. But Scripture, reason and consciousness all unite in teaching man that he is morally free, that he is an agent, and not something merely acted on. God’s providential government of men, therefore, is based on their freedom as rational and moral beings, and consists in such an administration and guidance by the Holy Spirit of the affairs of men as shall encourage free moral agents to virtue, and discourage them from sin. God’s providence must needs work upon and with two kinds of wills--willing wills and opposing wills.

(1) Divine Providence as Related to Willing Wills.

The apostle declares that God works in believers "both to will and to do of his good pleasure." If God’s special providence over and in behalf of His children may involve an intervention of His Divine power within the realm of physical law, much more, it would seem, will it involve a similar intervention within the realm of the human mind and the human will. Spiritual guidance is one of the most precious privileges of believers, but it is difficult to conceive how the Holy Spirit can effectively guide a believer without finding some way of controlling his will and determining his volitions that is compatible with free agency. While most of man’s thoughts, emotions and volitions are self-determined in their origin, being due to the free and natural workings of his own mind and heart and will, yet there are also thoughts, emotions and volitions that are divinely produced. Even a sinner under conviction of sin has thoughts and emotions that are produced by the Holy Spirit. Much more has the believer divinely-produced thoughts and feelings; and if divinely-produced thoughts and feelings, there may be, in like manner, it would seem, Divinely produced volitions. Does this seem irreconcilable with the fact of moral free agency? We think not; it is no more subversive of human free agency for God to influence effectively a man’s volitions and secure a certain course of action than it is for one man effectively to influence another. No volition that is divinely necessitated can be a free moral volition; for moral volitions are such as are put forth freely, in view of motives and moral ends. The element of necessity and compulsion would destroy all true freedom in, and moral accountability for, any particular volition, so that it could not be either virtuous or vicious. But--and here is the crucial point--when a man, by an act of his own will, freely commits the ordering of his life to God, and prays God to choose for him what is best, working in him both to will and to do, that act of self-commitment to God involves the very essence of moral freedom, and is the highest exercise of free agency. "Our wills are ours to make them Thine," the poet has truly said. In other words, the highest moral act of man’s free will is the surrender of itself to the divine will; and whatever control of man’s will on God’s part results from and follows this free act of self-surrender is entirely consistent with perfect moral freedom, even though it should involve divinely-produced volitions. Does a perplexed child cease to be free when in the exercise of his freedom he asks a wise and loving father to decide a matter for him, and be his guide in attaining a certain desired end? Surely not; and this intervention of parental wisdom and love is none the less effective if it should work, as far as possible, through the mind and will of the child, rather than allow the child to be entirely passive. So God works effectively through the mind and will of every soul who unreservedly commits himself to the divine will--commits himself not once simply, but continually. God cannot under the divinely-appointed laws of freedom work in and through the sinner "both to will and to do," because the sinner’s will is bent on evil, and hence, opposed to the divine will. God’s will can work, not with, but only against, a sinful will; and if it should so work and necessitate his volitions, that would destroy his true freedom. But, if God should work in and through an obedient and acquiescent will that is seeking divine guidance, THAT would be an exercise of divine power in no way incompatible with the true moral freedom of men. Such is the influence, as we conceive it, of the divine will upon the human will in providence. God’s providence works effectively only through willing wills.

(2) Divine Providence as Related to Sinful Free Will.

But God’s providence encounters opposing as well as willing wills. Not every unconverted man, however, represents an equally antagonistic will--there are different degrees of opposition. That God’s gracious and special providence in behalf of an individual often antedates his forsaking sin and his acceptance of Christ as a personal Saviour is manifest to every student of Christian biography. Much of the best training that many a "chosen vessel" ever receives for his life-work turns out to be that unconscious providential preparation which he was receiving under a Father’s guidance before he consciously consecrated himself to his divine Master. "I girded thee, though thou hast not known me," said God to Cyrus--and on this text Horace Bushnell preached one of the greatest of modern sermons on divine providence, taking as his theme, "Every man’s life is a plan of God." If this be true of a Christian man, that, even before his conversion, the Holy Spirit was seeking him, and even preparing him, as far as was then possible, for fulfilling the "plan of God" in his life, is it not in all probability equally true that the Holy Spirit and the good providence of God were working in behalf of other sinners who persisted to the end in rebellion against God? Such is the power of moral free agency with which God has endowed man that the created free agent can defeat the plan of Infinite Love concerning his life, and frustrate the workings of providence in his behalf (Jer 18). Whether a free moral agent, then, shall allow God’s providential plans to be worked out for him or not, depends upon his own free will. It is said of the divine Christ that He could not do many mighty works in a certain city because of their unbelief and opposition. In like manner divine providence is conditioned and limited by a sinful free will.

5. Divine Providence as Related to Natural and Moral Evil:

That the Biblical writers do not regard the existence of evil as a valid objection to divine providence is evident to every student of the Scriptures. Indeed, it is in working good out of what the world accounts evil that divine providence accomplishes many of its most salutary and beneficent ends in behalf of the good. That natural or physical evil (poverty, sickness, suffering, etc.) is one of the mightiest agencies in the hands of God for restraining and correcting moral evil and for working out moral and spiritual good to fallen and sinful men, admits of easy demonstration. For the existence in the world of moral evil (sin), man, the moral free agent, is wholly responsible. God could prevent moral free agents from sinning only by not creating them, or else by placing their wills under irresistible divine restraint and compulsion. But the latter method of controlling them would virtually destroy their real and true freedom; and if this were done, then not only all sin, but all virtue and holiness as attributes of free beings would be thereby rendered impossible in men; for only such beings can put forth free holy volitions as can put forth free sinful volitions. If man had never sinned, there would probably have never been such a large providential use of natural or physical evil as prevails at present; and this because of the fact that an unfallen and holy race of beings would not have needed the presence of natural evil to secure their highest moral development. But a fallen and sinful race does need such an agency to bring it back to God and to develop holy character and the highest moral service. It is not true that sin is now always or even generally the immediate cause of an individual’s suffering physical evil, or that extraordinary suffering is a proof of extraordinary sin. "Master, who did sin," asked the disciples, "this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (Joh 9:2,3 King James Version). Human suffering is for man’s spiritual good and for the divine glory, as shown in working good out of evil--this is the explanation which the Master gives as to why natural evil is permitted or sent by God. It is not only a powerful, but, in a world like ours, a necessary agency for the correction and cure of moral evil and for the spiritual development of fallen man. "Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I observe thy word .... It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I may learn thy statutes" (Ps 119:67,71); "Every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit" (Joh 15:2). The saintly and eminently useful men and women of history have, as a rule, had to undergo a severe discipline and to endure many and severe trials, and were made perfect only by their sufferings. Divine providence thus turns much of the world’s natural and physical evil into moral good.

6. Evil Providentially Over-ruled for Good:

Many of the things that befall the children of God are directly due to the sins of other men. That good men, even the very best of men, suffer many things at the hands of wicked men admits of no question; and yet these ills are among the "all things" which are declared by the apostle to work together for good to them that love God. The good that may ensue to good men from the evil conduct of the wicked is certainly not due to the intrinsic power in sin to work good to those against whom it is maliciously directed; it can only be due to the fact that God overrules it for the good of the innocent. "As for you," said Joseph, "ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good" (Ge 50:20); "The things which happened unto me," said Paul, "have fallen out rather unto the progress of the gospel" (Php 1:12). God, though foreknowing the evil that wicked men are planning to work against His children, may not prevent it; and this because He can and will overrule it for His glory and for their good, if they abide faithful. But, suppose a good man is not simply injured, but killed by the wicked, as in the case of the martyrs that died at the stake--does the principle still hold good? It does, we answer; the saint who dies in the discharge of duty and because of is fidelity to duty is not only assured, by all the promises of revelation, of a happy immortality, but he has the rare privilege of serving to advance the kingdom of God by his death as well as by his life. God’s kingdom is advanced in manifold ways by the death of good men. Is not "the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church"? But we need here again to remark that it is not material and temporal, but moral and spiritual good, that God has guaranteed to His holy, loving and faithful children. If sin had an intrinsic power to work good, they would be right who maintain that "the end justifies the means, and one may do evil when good will come of it" (compare Ro 3:8); and they also would be right who maintain that God is the Author of evil, seeing that evil is, on that supposition, only disguised good--propositions which are thoroughly vicious and subversive of all that is good in man or God. The Scriptures, rightly interpreted, nowhere lend themselves to such false and misleading ethics (compare Isa 45:7). 7. Interpreting Providence:

To what extent may we, having studied God’s providential methods as revealed in the Scriptures, in Nature, in human history, and in personal experience, venture to interpret providence as it applies to current events in our own lives and in the lives of others? Experience and observation will warn us both against haste and against too great confidence in our interpretations of providence. Hasty misinterpretations of providence in its bearing on present passing events frequently become fruitful sources of skepticism for the future. Some people are much given to interpreting providence. Certain ills or misfortunes come to a bad man; they are quick to assert that it is a divine judgment sent upon him in view of his sin. Certain blessings come to a good man; they are sure the blessings are heaven-sent in view of his extraordinary piety. A whiskey merchant’s store burns down: it is, say they, a divine judgment, in view of his ill-gotten gains. But presently the property of an unquestionably pious and consecrated man is swept away by the flames: where now is the providence? The "oracles" fail to explain; and so they do in innumerable other cases: as, for example, when two men, a saint and a sinner, are prostrated on beds of sickness. The former, in spite of prayer and piety, continues to grow worse, and perhaps dies; while the other, without piety or prayer, is restored to health. God has not made us interpreters of His providences except for ourselves; and even much of that which we sincerely believe comes to us in a graciously providential manner we can well afford to keep as a sacred secret between ourselves and our God, seeing that God has not furnished us with any means of absolutely proving that what has happened to us might not have happened, under similar circumstances, even to sinful men. Many a Christian man comes to see that the ill that has happened to him--the loss of property, the terrible spell of sickness, and the like--things that, at the time, he would not interpret as providential--are among the best things that were ever sent upon him, in that they made him holier and more useful (compare Joh 13:7):

"Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter

And He will make it plain."

There are, however, many evident truths written large on the pages of history, in the rise, decline and fall of kingdoms and nations, which he who runs may read. And to him who truly believes in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and who will duly consider all the facts and lessons of life, in himself and others, in individuals and in nations, and not for a day merely but patiently as the years come and go, it will be made plain that "God’s in His heaven--All’s right with the world," and that all things work together for the spiritual good of those who love God and who prove their love for Him by serving their fellow-men.

8. Conclusion:

We conclude, then, that there is, according to the Scriptures, an ever-watchful providence exercised by the heavenly Father over His faithful and loving children, which is ceaselessly working to secure their ever-increasing holiness and usefulness here, an their perfect happiness in a future state of existence. To prepare rational and immortal free agents through holiness and usefulness here for happiness hereafter is the aim and end of this all-embracing providence of God, which includes within its loving care every human being except such as exclude themselves therefrom by their own willful and persistent sinning. And in the accomplishment of this end, what the world counts as the misfortunes and ills of life often contribute far more than what, in the estimation of men, are accounted the greatest earthly blessings. There is no providential highway to a state here that is free from life’s ills, and that abounds in temporal and earthly blessings to the good. But there is a royal and holy highway, along which moves a providential pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the children of the covenant, through lives of loving service and sacrifice, to a holy land of promise, the goal of a gracious providence; and they who journey along this highway bear this seal: "The Lord knoweth them that are his: And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity" (2Ti 2:19 the King James Version). They who bear this seal are the divinely-chosen instruments and agents of that larger and wider providence that is ever working to establish a perfect kingdom of righteousness in the whole earth, that kingdom of God, to inaugurate which, in its Messianic form, our Lord became incarnate, and to consummate which, in its final and perfect form, He reigns from heaven and will continue to reign until, having "put all enemies under his feet," He shall "deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father"--when the poet’s vision shall be realized of:

"That God who ever lives and loves;

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off Divine event,

To which the whole creation moves."


James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World; A. B. Bruce, The Providential Order of the World; James McCosh, The Method of Divine Government; James Hinton, The Mystery of Pain; John Telford, Man’s Partnership with Divine Providence; W. N. Clarke, The Christian Doctrine of God, and, An Outline of Christian Theology; W. B. Pope, Compendium of Christian Theology; A. L. Lilley, Adventus Regni; Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament; Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus; George B. Stevens, The Pauline Theology; E. P. Gould, The Biblical Theology of the New Testament; T. Jackson, The Providence of God Viewed in the Light of the Holy Scripture; H. M. Gwatkin, The Knowledge of God; Lux Mundi: Preparation in History for Christ; J. Flavell, Divine Conduct, or the Mystery of Providence; O. D. Watkins, The Divine Providence; Borden P. Bowne, The Immanence of God.

Wilbur F. Tillett

See also

  • God