Counseled by the Puritans on Providence

Slowly working my way through A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life; I was recently blown away by the tenth chapter, which is entitled “The Puritans on Providence.” I was already tired enough to go to bed, when I decided to read another chapter in this massive volume, so I wondered if there was any practical wisdom in my decision to open any book. However; I found myself being renewed in strength after reading just a few pages, which propelled me to finish the chapter. It was exactly what I needed.

In today’s post, I will attempt to summarize 15 pages of theology into 1500 words.

Puritan Definitions and Teaching on Providence

Puritan Arthur Dent (1553-1607) wrote, ‘For every one of us, when we do confess God to be almighty, do acknowledge that he by his providence rules everything.’

The Heidelberg Catechism asks to what advantage it is to know that God rules and upholds all things and then answers this way: “That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.”

William Ames (1576-1633) deduced the following lessons from Romans 11:36, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.”

  • God has a fixed providence by which He cares for all things and directs them to His own glory. God’s wisdom, not chance, moves all that is unto its proper end.
  • The providence of God includes in itself not only the intention but also the comprehension of the goal. God always achieves His goals; His blessedness proves it, and His power and wisdom guarantee it.
  • The providence of God extends to all things. God is a good head of household (Eph 2:19) who takes care of all His children and all His property.

God accomplishes His purposes through his governing providence (Eph 1:11-12). “The counsel of God is His ‘mature pitching upon what is best’ or ‘a certain judgment of what is best to do,’ which God is uniquely qualified to do (Isa 28:29). Ultimately this is God’s will, for God did not make choices by selecting the best available option, as if He depended on anything. Rather, ‘all is attributed to his will,’ and God’s counsel formulated how ‘to do it the best way.’”

God works in and through secondary causes. “[John] Owen said that God upholds all things in ‘their being, natural strength, and faculties.’ God works in and through secondary causes. He rules all things to make them accomplish His purposes for His glory, even accidents such as an axhead flying off its handle and killing a man (cf. Exod 21:13; Deut 19:5). Understanding how God works through secondary causes is ‘beyond the reach of mortals,’ Owen said. But the truth of His providence is clearly revealed in Scripture.”

We must, by faith, cling to the Scriptures. Commenting on John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, the authors write, “We see providence now like the ‘disjointed wheels and scattered pins of a watch,’ but in glory we will see the timepiece as a completed whole. By contrast, God views providence as a unified working reality, for, ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world’ (Acts 15:18). He is like an ‘accurate anatomist discerning the course of all the veins and arteries of the body,’ Flavel said. Within this mystery, we must cling to what God has revealed in the Scriptures.”

Even evil deeds can be used by God for his work. “Flavel offered a particularly gripping example of this. In 1673, a ship returning from Virginia anchored at Dartmouth. A young surgeon on board, who was deeply depressed, attempted suicide. As the surgeon lay dying, he was visited by Flavel, who spoke to him about the gospel. Flavel continued to visit the doctor, who, in time, was converted and recovered from his injuries. Thus God providentially used an attempted suicide to bring a man to conversion. He turned evil to good. Other experiences may not be so spectacular, but they are no less supernatural.”

In opposition to the Arminian view of divine providence, which gives too much credit to the will of man, John Owen argued that the Bible teaches:

  • God’s providence rules the plans and most secret resolutions of men (Jer 10:23; Prov 16:9; Ps 33:10-11; 2 Sam 15:31 [cf. 17:14]).
  • God’s providence turns men’s hearts whichever way He pleases (Prov 16:1; Gen 43:14; Prov 21:1; Dan 5:23).
  • God’s saints pray for Him to move their hearts and bend their wills (Ps 119:36; 1 Kings 8:57-58; Pss 51:10; 86:11), as He promised (Jer 32:40).
  • The certainty of God’s promises depends on His determining and turning the wills of men as He pleases (Prov 3:4; Ps 106:46; Job 12:17; Matt 16:18).

Puritan Submission to Providence

“The Puritan doctrine of providence calls men to surrender to God’s will. [Thomas] Goodwin said, ‘If God works all things according to the counsel of his own will, you should not lean to your own will, nor to your own wisdom; give yourself up fully unto God (Prov 23:4).’”

Suffering complicates and tests our surrender to God. “Sorrows create a grave dilemma for the Christian, for he does not want to deny either the sovereignty or the goodness of God. If we desire to walk humbly with our God (Mic 6:8), then, as Owen said, we must fall down before God and acknowledge that He has the sovereign right to do as He pleases. We must believe that He acts with wisdom, righteousness, goodness, love, and mercy in all that He does, even though it may be difficult to see that in confusing vicissitudes, dizzying changes, and deep distresses of life.”

God often exercises His providence through methods that are beyond our understanding. “Hopkins warned that if human reason attempts to track the logic of divine providence, it will find itself in ‘entangled mazes and labyrinths,’ just as if we try to search out God’s eternal decree of election….In reflection upon his troubles, David wrote in Psalm 39:9, ‘I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.’ From this Brooks deduced, ‘It is the great duty and concernment of gracious souls to be mute and silent under the greatest afflictions, the saddest providences, and sharpest trials that they meet with in this world.’ He did not propose a stoic silence, a sullen silence, or a despairing silence. Rather, he called for a believing silence—an inner quietness born of seeing through secondary causes the majestic and righteous God who holds all things in His hand. We may groan to God, but we must not grumble against God.’ One of the greatest trials of our faith is waiting in the midst of adversity for God to act. But God is never late! Flavel wrote, ‘The Lord doth not compute and reckon his seasons of working by our arithmetic.’

God ordains “crooked providences.” Thomas Boston said that “whatever is crooked in life was made so by God and therefore must be received in submission to God. ‘There is not anything whatsoever befalls us without his over-ruling hand,’ he said….We cannot straighten what He has made crooked (Eccl 7:13).’ Boston listed seven purposes of God’s crooked providences.

  1. To prove your spiritual state as a hypocrite or genuine believer
  2. To stir you to obedience, wean you from this world, and set your eyes on heaven
  3. To convict you of sin
  4. To correct or punish [chasten] you for sin
  5. To prevent you from committing sin
  6. To reveal latent sin deep within your heart
  7. To awaken you from laziness so that you exercise yourself in grace.

Puritan Meditation on the Providence of God

“Failure to meditate on God’s providence is sinful for it diminishes our praise of God. Moreover, we rob ourselves of the nourishment our faith receives from such meditation.” In summary, the Puritans directed us to biblical principles concerning God’s providence that we as believers desperately need to hear.

  • God is in control of His universe.
  • God is working out His perfect purposes, also in my life.
  • God is not my servant.
  • God’s ways are far more mysterious and wonderful than I can understand.
  • God is always good; I can always trust Him.
  • God’s timetable is not the same as mine.
  • God is far more interested in what I become than in what I do.
  • Freedom from suffering is not promised in the Christian gospel.
  • Suffering is an integral part of the Christian life.
  • God works through suffering to fulfill His purposes in me.
  • God’s purposes, not mine, are what bring Him glory.
  • God enables me to read His providences through the lens of His Word.
  • I have few greater pleasures than tracing the wonders of God’s ways.

“No wonder, then, that Sedgwick admonishes us with the words of Psalm 37:5: ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.’ The God of the Bible, the God of sovereign providence, He alone is worthy of such trust.”

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