In God’s providence, he guides and directs the affairs of the world. God does not simply know what will happen; he orders the world to suit his will. Sovereignty is about who God is; providence is about what God does.
Now the Confession says, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”
“Means” has to do with God working through nature. If God wants to bless a person, he might do so through another person. If God judges a nation, he might do so through the economy. However, God is not bound to work through nature since he is above and beyond nature. To say that God is required to work through nature would place him within nature, which he is not.
The sun standing still in Joshua 10 is a good case study. By having the sun stand still, he made it so that the Israelites would defeat their enemy. So in one sense, God worked through means (having the sun stand still). In another sense, God making the sun stand still simply happened because of his word, without means. However you look at it, God is the first cause of the whole event.
But what about sin? If God has providence over all creation, does he then permit evil? If so, then how does he hold anyone guilty?
The Confession is worth quoting at length. “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul speaks about this issue directly. First he says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (v.32). All people are sinners, and that did not require God to sin. Think of you and your children (or future children). Without your involvement they would not be here. You raised and taught them. And yet they sin, do they not? Who do you hold responsible for their behavior? Of course, you discipline them because they have sinned.
The illustration holds not because we are God’s children but because God is greater than our parents. If a parent is not responsible for his child’s behavior, how much more is God not responsible for our behavior.
In the same vein, Paul notes that this is a mystery. He goes on to say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor’” (vv.33-34)?
God does not make you sin any more than you make your child sin. It’s baked in to the cake on a cosmic level, a mysterious level. But God is so outside of what we call reality that he is not to be thought of as a puppet master any more than Sir Author Conan Doyle was a puppet master for Sherlock Holmes. Both Scripture and the Confession relate this mystery back to God’s goodness and wisdom. That is not to be disregarded.
At times God has purposes for permitting sin to remain, while his ultimate goal is to completely destroy it. “The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled[.]”
Christ “learned obedience” (Hebrews 5:8) through suffering. How much more should we learn through suffering? Christ was tempted in the desert by Satan himself, so how much more should we learn by battling temptations? While Christ had no former sins or had to learn the “hidden strength” of sin, we certainly do. God always provides a way of escape from temptation, but he does not necessarily always remove the temptation itself. If Christ suffered temptation without it being removed completely, we should expect the same, for the same glorious purpose: learning obedience.
Continuing in the same line of thought, the Confession then says, “to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for other just and holy ends. So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good.”
By temptation, we learn our own heart’s corruptions, we learn obedience, and we learn dependence on our heavenly Father. The outcome of defeating temptation is always holiness, which ultimately works for our good and our Father’s glory. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Next week, we’ll close our short study of God’s providence concerning those from whom God might withhold his grace.