Today's Broadcast

What Is Providence?

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Everything in creation is under the providing care of God. Not only does God supply all things, He arranges them according to His plan for His glory. For Christians, this ought to produce peace and comfort even when it appears that all is against them. In this message, Dr. Sproul explores many different aspects of the Providence of God, beginning by answering the question, "What is Providence?"

From the series: The Providence of God

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Providence Defined

  2. devotional

    What Is Providence?

  3. article

    The Providence of God

Providence Defined

Throughout the Old Testament Poetical Books, also known as the Wisdom Literature, we find repeated references to the rule and reign of our great God. Proverbs 16:1, for example, talks about the Lord's sovereignty over our speech. Psalm 113 emphasizes God as the highly exalted Sovereign over creation. Moreover, if we consider the entire Bible, we find that the Lord's sovereign reign is apparent on every page of Scripture. The doctrine of providence unfolds the nature of God's control of all things as the King of kings, and we will now take a break from our study of the Wisdom Literature to look at the biblical teaching on providence with the help of The Providence of God, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

Since the Enlightenment (seventeenth–eighteenth centuries), much of Western thought has been dominated by naturalistic assumptions that say the universe is all that there is. With the rise of the so-called New Atheism over the past decade or so, we have seen how aggressively these assumptions are held, as the movement's proponents belittle anyone who believes that there is something that exists outside the physical order. However, this belief goes against the majority belief of people throughout history, who often spoke of something beyond the universe that guides creation. They have assumed the existence of a being or beings who influence and control creation.

The English term providence is derived from two Latin words: pro, which means "before," and vide, which means "see." With respect to divine providence, a key aspect of its meaning is that it refers to God's foresight in a temporal sense. God sees and knows the future, having declared the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:8–10). Yet this is not passive knowledge. The Lord does not look at the future as if it were on a movie screen and learn what will happen; rather, His knowledge of the future comes from His foreordination of whatsoever comes to pass. He works out all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11), which means His will establishes all that ever happens. Our Creator also "sees before" in a spatial sense. Being omnipresent, He cannot ever overlook or miss anything in creation (Ps. 139:7–12).

God's providence is one of the most comforting truths revealed in Scripture. It reminds the believer that the loving Father revealed in the Bible knows all about our every need and fear even better than we do. And because He is the Lord, He can meet all our needs and assuage all our fears (Phil. 4:19).

What Is Providence?

The doctrine of the providence of God can be an obscure concept to many people. To gain greater insight into this glorious doctrine, we will spend the next week examining God’s providential care of this world. To begin with, the providence of God is simply God’s involvement in the world. Jerry Bridges defines providence as God’s “constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people.” While many people say they believe in some kind of God, very few believe in a personal God who is involved in their everyday lives. However, God is very involved in governing and caring for His creation. He cares about everything that happens to His people and directs all events to bring about His purposes.

The concept of providence has been all but lost in our culture and our church. Until the 19th century, people were acutely aware of Divine Providence. The letters of farmers, soldiers, and merchants were filled with references to the hand of Providence. At one time, most people assumed that a sovereign God was directly involved in the activities and events of history.

The mentality of our culture today, however, is shaped by existential philosophy, which leaves God out of the picture. The 20th century person is unsure whether an all-powerful being exists and is active in people’s lives. While some may believe that a God exists, they hopelessly maintain that this Divine Being is either unable or unwilling to become involved in their lives.

One issue at the core of understanding providence is that of causality. Earlier societies maintained that there is a Being who is the ultimate first cause of everything that happens. Today, however, people reject the concept that a Divine Being possesses and exercises such power. However, the God of Scripture is One who not only sees everything beforehand, which is what providence essentially means, but He actively brings about all He determines. Accepting the truth that God sees everything and is everywhere active is frightening because sinful man cannot hide from God. But Divine Providence also comforts because we know God cares for His people and preserves them while they journey through life.

The Providence of God

Derek Thomas

The entire life of Joseph is summarized in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The teenager we met at the beginning of the story is now over a hundred years old. His life has come full circle, and he is addressing his duplicitous brothers. Their actions, in selling him into slavery, had nothing but evil intent written all over it. Their malevolence can in no way be lessened by the knowledge that things did not turn out as they might have done. Truth is, God overruled their evil actions to accomplish a purpose that neither they nor Joseph could have fathomed. God brought good out of evil. In the words of the Westminster Confession, God in His providence “upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures, actions and things” to bring about a sovereignly pre-determined plan (5.1). 

This, God had accomplished through a variety of actions. Joseph’s descent into slavery, followed by a false accusation of rape resulting in a lengthy imprisonment, spelled his downward spiral to the bottom. His life could hardly have been much worse. Only now, from the vantage point of what God had, in fact, accomplished — ensuring that an heir of the covenant promises was in the most powerful position in Egypt at a time when famine engulfed Canaan to ensure the survival of the covenant family — could Joseph look back and see the hand of God. As the puritan John Flavel has been so frequently cited as saying, providence is best read like Hebrew, backwards! Only then is it possible to trace the divine hand on the tiller guiding the gospel ship into a safe harbor. No matter how dark things get, His hand is always in control. Or, as the poet William Cowper wrote in verse:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
but trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast;
unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower. 

Providence has wider issues in mind than merely our personal comfort or gain. In answer to the oft-cited question in times of difficulty, “Why me?” the forthcoming answer is always, “Them!” He allows us to suffer so that others may be blessed. Joseph suffered in order that his undeserving brothers might receive blessing. In their case, this meant being kept alive during a time of famine and having the covenant promises of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, reaffirmed before their eyes. 

What do you think went through the minds of those disciples who carried the blood-soaked body of Stephen for his burial? Were they saying to themselves, “What a waste! Couldn’t God have spared this godly man so that he might be of use to the church in her time of need? Does God care about us at all?” In all these questions, they would have been showing the shortsightedness that is so much a part of unbelief. They would not have been reckoning on the purposes of God had they asked such questions. For there, at the feet of Stephen’s corpse, stood a man upon whom Stephen’s death had the most profound impact. In hearing the voice of Jesus speak to him and accuse him of persecuting God’s Messiah, Paul learned what is arguably his most characteristic feature: that every Christian is in such spiritual union with Christ that to persecute one of His little ones is to persecute Jesus Himself! 

And what were the purposes behind Joseph’s suffering? At least two are forthcoming in the closing chapters of Genesis: the first on a microcosmic level and the second on a larger, macrocosmic level. Joseph learned first of all that whatever happened to him personally, he was part of a larger purpose in which God’s plan was being revealed. In that case, he could not hold grudges against his brothers, no matter how badly they had behaved. True, they must learn their sin and confess it, and this explains the lengthy way in which Joseph finally reveals himself to them as his brother after first of all making them think that they had stolen from a prince of Egypt. God had used him as an instrument in the spiritual growth of his brothers, and Joseph seems to sense that by his utter unwillingness to hold a grudge against them. 

But secondly, and on a much larger platform, Joseph begins to learn the answer to the question, how will the promises made to Abraham be fulfilled? At one level, the final scene of Jacob’s burial in Canaan attended by a huge entourage of Egyptians seems a curious way to end the story of Joseph. But it is part and parcel of it. In the end, the Egyptians are paying homage to Joseph’s family! When Jacob says to his son, “Make sure that I am buried in the land of promise” (see Gen. 50:5), he is thinking of the promise that God had given to Abraham of a land — a land that at this time they did not possess apart from this burial plot! At the end of Genesis the people of God are nowhere near possessing Canaan. They are going to spend four hundred years in captivity in Egypt. But in Jacob’s burial there is a glimpse of things to come. God has not forgotten His promise. He never does. 

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