The component of God’s providence that perhaps is concerning for many is that if God gives grace to the elect, what are his dealings with the non-elect? Does God make them do evil, wicked things in order that he will not be obligated to save them? Why does God choose some and not others? The Confession is helpful in understanding this difficult truth about the love and justice of God.
"As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as the righteous judge, for former sin doth blind and harden; from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts; but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others.”
The doctrine of man is called “anthropology”. Where one starts with anthropology will determine how one understands God’s providential dealings with both regenerate and unregenerate men.
If we believe that man is either naturally good or neutral and we are the product of choices and outside forces, then it seems unreasonable that God would ever judge anyone negatively. God would be a despot who makes arbitrary choices about people’s eternity.
However, if we hold to a view of anthropology that says that man is by nature corrupted and only chooses things that are contrary to God’s design, then we marvel at the fact that he shows grace to anyone at all. This is not a low view of man; it is a realistic and biblical view.
The apostle Paul says in Romans 1:24-25, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Does God create new evil in the hearts of man? By no means. That would make God the author of evil, which of course he is not. Sometimes God simply permits the natural course of a man’s sin to play out. For many, the only earthly punishment they might receive is the natural consequences of their actions. Providence helps us understand that two things can be true at once: God is in control of reality, and there are consequences for our actions built in to the fabric of reality.
In the Old Testament, we are often tempted to view faith as relatively unimportant to the people because they had a law to follow. That’s untrue. God still had to give the people faith for them to have it. God does withhold faith from some, but it is always for a purpose.
In Deuteronomy 29, Moses is renewing the Sinai covenant with the people. He recounts all that God has done for the people, which was hidden from no one. Then he says, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). Miracles and wonders do not make anyone believe. At no other time in the history of redemption were more miracles performed in view of more people than during the wilderness years. And yet, God still had to actively open the eyes and ears and hearts of the people for them to have faith. In the millennial kingdom, after a thousand years of peace with Christ as king visibly on the earth, at the moment Satan is released there will be people who choose to follow him. Miracles might confirm the message, but only God gives faith to those whom he chooses.
As Isaiah preaches to the people to turn back to God, he realizes that God has ordered that some would not believe. Isaiah writes, “And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “‘“Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive”’” (Isaiah 6:9).
When this troubles us, we must keep in the front of our minds a biblical anthropology. Man is not born as a blank slate or naturally good. Man is born sinful. Adam is our covenant head until Christ becomes our covenant head. King David knew this when he wrote, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). That was the only way he could understand why he behaved the way he did.
But for those who God loves and so chooses, the Confession says, “As the providence of God doth in general reach to all creatures, so after a more special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof.”
The same providence that permits sin’s natural consequences play out protects the church from his wrath. Instead of wrath, God’s providence brings about the good and blessing of the church.
So we can say that God does not create new evil the hearts of the unregenerate, but he passes over his mercy. But the church he showers with mercy and grace. God might leave us with our temptations for a time of discipline and spiritual growth, but he does not leave us completely.
God’s providence consists of his dealings with all creatures. And in Romans 9, Paul helps us understand why God might pass over some while saving others. In the mind of God, which understands all mysteries, saving some and not others acutely leads to the salvation of more people that if we were left to our own devices. Why? Because not one of us would choose to live a godly life in perfect obedience apart from Christ’s intervention and propitiation.
Next week, we will look at the doctrine of the fall of man and its consequences.