Providence and sovereignty are related but are to be distinguished from each other. Sovereignty is who God is. He is by his very nature sovereign over all of creation. He has total authority, has full knowledge, and will share his glory with no one else.
On the other hand, providence is what God does. Providence is related to God’s will. God guides and directs all things to bring about his sovereign will.
The Confession begins the section on God’s providence with, “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.”
There is nothing outside of his purview. Small and great all receive the same care, because small and great alike would cease to exist without being upheld by their creator and sustainer. All things ultimately have the same purpose: to bring glory to its creator. Of course beyond that, creation clearly says that stars are for determining times and seasons, plants are for food, etc.
Baptists (along with most Protestants) affirm both God’s foreknowledge and his counsel. God’s counsel is essentially his desire for a certain outcome, and foreknowledge is that he knows what will happen. If you press too hard on one of these and not the other, you wind up distorting God’s providence. To say only that God possesses foreknowledge is to imply that God does not direct all things. To say only that God has counsel is that he may desire a certain outcome but cannot accomplish it. Upholding that God both knows and administers the future affirms his sovereignty.
Isaiah 46:10 says that God has been “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose[.]’” Before time began, God both willed and knew what the end would be. Before Genesis 1, God knew Revelation 22.
Does this then absolve mankind of all responsibility? Of course not; Scripture does not allow it. One example is Acts 2:23, which says that God planned the crucifixion and lawless man killed him. How can those two things be true at once?
The Confessions says, “Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”
Too often we think of God as one of the Greek mythological heroes, or simply as greater than ourselves. God lives and operates within the same system that you and I do, so we think. But that would necessarily demean God to a created being, which of course he is not and cannot be. God can be outside of reality, can determine reality, and can not be a puppet master. For God to be a puppet master, he would have to be in the same system as the puppet.
Reformed theology recognizes two forms of liberty: creaturely and moral. Creaturely liberty is choosing what you do for a living, what you will have for dinner, and who you will marry. Everyone has that kind of liberty. What the unregenerate do not have, but what the regenerate have received as a gift, is moral liberty. Moral liberty was lost when our first parents sinned in the garden. When the Spirit indwells us, we are now endowed with moral liberty to choose righteousness. All of this is to show that sovereignty and providence do not inhibit moral responsibility in any meaningful way.
The Confession recognizes “second causes”. Second causes are those which are not God himself but would be responsible in a natural way. For instance, a natural disaster is a second cause, while God remains the first cause. In a better example, evangelism is a second cause. The Holy Spirit would be the first cause. One of the more recognizable Proverbs is Proverbs 16:33, which says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Men may make plans or have to deal with natural consequences, but God, outside of our system, guides and directs all things to his own glory.
Next week, we’ll look deeper at how God’s providence and the sinful actions of men play out together.