Summary: An exposition on the doctrine of providence.


The siege by the Colonial army against the British troops entrenched in Boston lasted nearly a year. Neither side could attain a decisive edge. The tide turned on two remarkable feats. Peter Lillback writes about these achievements:

In early March 1776, Washington and his men managed to secretly assemble major artillery aimed at the ten indefensible British garrisons and ships. Through the ingenuity of Henry Knox, whom Washington assigned the task, the Americans managed to sled more than two hundred gigantic cannons and weaponry from the captured Fr. Ticonderoga through countless miles of wilderness tract of ice and snow. In the middle of the night, without the British noticing or stopping them, the Americans placed this artillery upon the heights at Dorchester, looking down at the British. By the time the British discovered this, it was too late. Thus, the British, under General William Howe, suffered a humiliating setback. All they could do was flee the city and the big guns as quickly as possible. To whom did Washington give the praise for this remarkable turn of events? To God. He wrote these words to his brother:

Upon their discovery of the works next morning, great preparations were made for attacking them; but not being ready before the afternoon, and the weather getting very tempestuous, much blood was saved, and a very important blow, to one side or the other, was prevented. That this most remarkable Interposition of Providence is for some wise purpose, I have not a doubt.

The course of the war greatly impressed on George Washington the doctrine of providence. Two years later in another letter, he would write:

The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this [the strange changes in the war], that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations, but it will be time enough for me to turn preacher, when my present appointment ceases; and therefore, I shall add no more on the Doctrine of Providence… (George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback)

By God’s providence, Washington turned President of the United States instead of preacher. But let’s take up this topic that so fascinated him. We’ll consider first what providence entails.

What Providence Entails

It strikes me that verse 36 presents a succinct definition of providence.

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

All things come from God. All things take place through him. And all things happen for his purposes which are summed up in his receiving glory.

Compare this definition to the explanation given in our Westminster Confession of Faith:

God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy (Chapter 5).

Again, we see the outline – from God, through God, to God.

This doctrine encompasses all God’s actions and everything that exists or takes place. It is not limited to salvation. It does not recognize that some things belong to Caesar and some to God. It gives no credence to human freewill that takes place apart from God’s control, nor that anything is out of step toward moving somehow along God’s purpose to his glory.

God’s providence is the natural outworking of God being sovereign. In his Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice explained simply what God’s sovereignty means: “He has absolute authority and rule” (117) Dr. Boice later writes about providence: “Providence means that God has not abandoned the world that he created, but rather works within that creation to manage all things according to the ‘immutable counsel of His own will’” (176). Or, we should add, as does the Confession, that God is also free to “work without, above, and against” the common means in the created world.

Why Providence is Unsettling

If you are like me, immediately objections rise in your minds. Isn’t the very concept a contradiction of reason? I speak as though you will listen, consider what I have to say, and then, out of your own freewill, respond. But providence teaches that you will act according to how God purposes. How can we have providence and freewill? Isn’t everyone reduced to being a puppet? Or more to the point: How can we have providence and yet hold people accountable for what they do? For that matter, what about the scripture texts that call upon people to make decisions and show how people are held accountable for their actions and even their thoughts?

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