What is Providence?

In today’s Christian sub-culture, it is common for people to claim that just about anything unusual is a miracle. People talk about the “miracle of childbirth” or they speak of the raise they got at work as “miraculous” because it was unexpected and beneficial in its timing. Recovery from a disease or surgery is also spoken of as being a miracle as is surviving a car accident or other potentially tragic encounter. Interestingly, in almost every case, miracles are events that are seen as beneficial. Never once have I heard a Christian say, “It was a miracle that the tornado came through and destroyed my home” or “It was a miracle that the stock market crashed at just the right time that all my investments have been lost.” In common usage, miracles must, I think by definition, be good things. Yet, if a good thing for one person is a bad thing for another person, how now does it get defined?

Our problem, of course, is that we are self-centered as a culture and we also do not understand the difference between a miracle and God’s providence — the difference between primary and secondary causes for events. The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, places far more in the realm of providence than I think most Christians are willing to concede, at least in our modern era for Question 27 speaks of God’s providence as the way in which God sustains his creation and governs all things so that not one thing that ever happens in this world of ours ever happens by chance. 

Let’s start with the miraculous then. A miracle is an act of God’s divine interposition whereby he interrupts the normal chains of events and brings about a result that cannot be explained by ordinary causal relationships. God’s creation of the universe Ex Nihilo or Jesus changing the water into wine are examples of miracles. Biblically, miracles are also designed to testify to the authenticity of a prophet’s office or, in the case of the Gospels, be a sign that Jesus was who he said he was, God in the flesh. With the completion of the Scriptures, which is the ultimate testimony of God, the miracles no longer serve that function and thus are no longer normative for the church, that is, with the exception of God breathing new life into a dead soul when he regenerates one of his elect.

Does that mean that God no longer governs his universe? Of course not. Yet, what it means is that God no longer governs his universe by being the primary cause of events, but works ordinarily as a secondary cause — by his providence, massaging the causal factors in such a way as that they bring out the results He desires. In this work, his hand is still visible to the believer but it remains invisible to the wicked so that they may remain in their unbelief.

And so, God raises up governments and throws them down. God stirs up the storms and calms them. God raises events in people’s lives that stir them to action or that pacify them. All these things God does, but through ordinary means that do not require a miracle to take place apart from regeneration. Yet, as God is God, he still brings about all things according to the counsel of his will so that once again, not one thing happens by chance and everything that is experienced in this world (good, bad, or in between) comes from his Fatherly hand. 

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