The Actions of God: Providence
What does God do? In the last few episodes of Thinking Theology we’ve been thinking about what God is like: what is his nature, what is his character and what he does. Last time we looked at God’s work in creation. But God not only created the world, he also sustains it, upholding it at every moment. In theology, that’s called providence.
But what does it mean that God is upholding the world? What does he control? Is there anything outside his control?
That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I write about theology and I teach it at Sydney Missionary and Bible College. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
God Controls Everything
So what do we learn from the Bible about God’s control over the world.
First of all, we see that he controls everything.
For example, Psalm 103:19 tells us,
The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:19 NIV)
God rules over all things and there’s nothing outside his control. Nothing frustrates his plans. Nothing thwarts them.
He says in Isaiah 46:11,
What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do. (Isaiah 46:11 NIV)
Moreover, when God acts to control all things he does it according to his own purpose and will.
For example, Psalm 135:6 says,
The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. (Psalm 135:6 NIV)
Or again in Ephesians 1:11, we’re told that God,
works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…. (Ephesians 1:11 NIV)
God is not constrained by things outside him. He rules over everything and he does as he pleases. That’s what it means to be God.
The Natural World
But we can say more, too, about the kind of control that God exercises. That is to say, we can drill down to specific areas to understand more clearly what it means that God controls everything.
John Frame in his Systematic Theology lists a number of categories in which we see God working out his control over all things.
For example, we also see how God controls the natural world.
Psalm 65 says,
You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. (Psalm 65:9–11 NIV)
In fact, even the things that we think are pure chance are from God.
Proverbs 16:33 tells us,
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33 NIV)
A lot is like a roll of the dice. To us it’s chance, to God it’s an expression of his purpose and will.
So, too, God is in control of human affairs.
He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them. (Job 12:23 NIV)
God raises up nations and he brings them down. He makes them prosper or fail. He uses them to achieve his purposes.
In Acts 17 says,
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26 NIV)
It’s not human governments or presidents or kings who determine the success of their empires. Behind all those things stands God.
Individual Human Life
But God not only controls the big movements of nations and state and countries. He is also sovereign over our individual lives.
So David can say in Psalm 139,
all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16 NIV)
God has planned our days before they even happen.
So, too, he works all things that happen for good in the lives of his people. Paul tells us in Romans 8,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)
And Proverbs 16:9 tells us that while we might make our plans it is God who establishes them or not.
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. (Proverbs 16:9 NIV)
In fact, God’s control over our lives means that we ought to hold onto our plans with a degree of reservation. As James says,
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–16 NIV)
We can’t control what happens today or tomorrow. That belongs to God, James says. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan. Rather, we plan knowing that all things are in God’s hands.
But God is not only in control of our individual lives, he is also, in some sense, sovereign over human decisions.
We may find that idea a little confronting and a little difficult to understand, but the Bible clearly shows it’s true.
For example, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. He says to Moses in Exodus 7:3,
But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. (Exodus 7:3 NIV)
Conversely, God opens the heart of Cyrus, king of Persian, to let his people come back from exile. Ezra 1:1 tells us,
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing…. (Ezra 1:1 NIV)
About Jesus’ crucifixion, we’re told in Acts 4:27,
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. (Acts 4:27–28 NIV)
Somehow God stood behind their decisions to crucify Jesus.
But how can God control human decisions without human beings becoming robots? We’ll come back to that question next time when we think about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and control and our responsibility. For the moment, we just need to notice that the Bible clearly portrays God as sovereign over human decisions in some sense.
Even harder to understand, but just as clear, is the idea that God is sovereign even over sin.
We’ve seen that already in God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. And also in God being sovereign over the decisions and actions of those who crucified Jesus. But we see it in other places too.
So Psalm 105:24–25 says,
The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants. (Psalm 105:24–25 NIV)
In some way, God turned the hearts of his enemies to hate his people.
Similarly in 2 Samuel 24, God incites David to do something that is ultimately a sin. That is, to count his fighting men. 2 Samuel 24:1 says,
Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1 NIV)
So, too, as we’ll explore more in future episodes, God is also sovereign over salvation.
Paul writes in Ephesians 1,
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4–6 NIV)
Paul’s point is that salvation is in accordance with God’s pleasure and will.
Or 2 Timothy 1:9,
He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…. (2 Timothy 1:9 NIV)
Again, in both cases, God has saved those particular people solely on the basis of his pleasure and will.
God is in control of everything. He’s in control of the natural world, human events, individual life, human decisions, including faith and salvation. He’s even sovereign in some way over sin.
That biblical view of God is quite different to the view that we can sometimes have of God. Sometimes we think of God as only intervening in the world at particular points.
That’s a little bit like what is often called a deistic view of God. In that view, God is like a watchmaker who creates the world, winds it up and then lets it run, but he’s not really involved in the day to day running of the world.
But the biblical view of God is that he is intervening at every moment. If God wasn’t involved in the world at every moment, it wouldn’t keep going.
And while we might find some aspects of God’s control hard to understand, at the end of the day it’s actually a great encouragement, because it assure us that God is in control of everything that is happening in the world and everything that is happening in our lives.
It means we don’t have to live lives of eternal vigilance because God is in control. It’s not up to me to make sure there is no World War 3, or that the government does what it should. Yes, we have a responsibility to live godly and faithful lives, but it’s not up to us to control the world. That’s God’s job and he’s doing a much better job than we would.
Well that’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
As I said, in the next episode, we’ll be trying to make some sense of how God’s sovereignty and control fits with our responsibility and our actions.
Please join me then.
 The following categories are taken from Frame, Systematic Theology, 146–68.