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Washington’s Providence

by D. Marion Clark July 5, 2009 Scripture: Romans 11:33-36


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?

Then there is the sheer enormity of what providence requires of God. We are a small sampling in this sanctuary. Even so, try to imagine what it is like to know every person here intimately all the time at the same time. Then add to that the ability to control what will happen in everyone’s life at every moment, and to arrange it all to fit exactly the one overall purpose you have in mind. Meanwhile, you are guiding the paths of all the cosmic bodies in the universe. And I haven’t even gotten into atoms. Can we really believe that there is such a mind controlling all that exists?

And then, the most unsettling question of all: What about evil? Does God, through providence, bring about wicked creatures and events? If so, then how can he be good? How can I trust such a god or love such a god? How can such a god be worshipped?

How Providence Should Affect Us

All of these are formidable questions, at least for my small mind. Greater minds can and have dealt with them. My intent, though, is as your pastor to help you consider how Scripture would have us respond to what it teaches about God’s providence.

1. It should humble us and lead us to glorify God.

I mentioned my trouble comprehending how God could be in control of all things. And, if he is in control of all things, then how at the same time could he hold people – his creatures – accountable for their actions? It is beyond me to comprehend such greatness to control all things and do so in a way that keeps both God’s sovereignty and man’s autonomy intact.

J. I. Packer, in his excellent book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, calls this seeming contradiction an antinomy. An antinomy is (to slightly alter The Shorter Oxford Dictionary) an apparent contradiction between conclusions that seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary. However much we may try, we simply do not have the intellectual capacity to put it all together. God and his ways are beyond us.

But then, that’s the point – God ultimately is incomprehensible. And we should be in awe of him. That is why Paul broke out into his doxology:

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,

          or who has been his counselor?”

35 “Or who has given a gift to him

          that he might be repaid?”

Isaiah 55:8-9 reads:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

          neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

9      For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

          so are my ways higher than your ways

          and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I use to regard this passage as saying that God simply has a higher IQ than I do. I knew the distance between us was immeasurable, but I still missed the point. God is not merely smarter than any of us. He is altogether on another plane beyond our comprehension.

Think about this. From what Scripture teaches us, God is eternal. He not only will live forever, he has never had a beginning, and he has always been fully who he is. He knows everything – everything! Every atom, every thought. He is everywhere – not some of him here and some of him there, but fully present everywhere in the infinite space beyond the universe. And he is has the power to do whatever it is he wills to do with everything.

So, when I look at a star and consider that God guides the path of that star and the millions upon millions more stars and the ants and bugs and the micro-organs in the earth; when I consider how God is guiding our actions and the actions of the more than six billion other inhabitants on the planet, and all for his purpose, I should not then be concluding that it is absurd to conceive of God having such capability and being so involved. Rather, I should conclude that it is absurd for me to conceive of God as just being a bigger, better version of me. And then, what I should do is get on my knees and humbly ascribe to God all glory and honor and power for the wondrous Creator and Sustainer that he is.

Consider Job’s experience. He demanded an explanation from God for what he could not understand. God’s response was, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” He then went through a litany of the providential work that he carries out. When Job is finally allowed to get a few words in, he replies to God:

“     I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

3 ‘     Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:2-3).

And is that not how we Christians are to regard our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer? Are we not to ascribe to him all wisdom and power and glory? A serious regard for providence will spur us on to do that.

2. The doctrine of providence should comfort us and give us hope.

Whenever something terrible happens, the first inclination of us who acknowledge the Lord God is to excuse him. “God did not cause that to happen.” It is an understandable reaction, especially when some grief-stricken person is asking us, “Why did God let this happen?”

But such a view has never appealed to me. I’ll explain why. When I hear comments like, “God did not want this to happen” or “God wishes that this had not happen,” what I hear being said is that God is like me. I’m a nice guy. I want only nice things to happen, and I wish I could stop unpleasant things from happening. I wish I could make things better.

That just doesn’t do it for me when it comes to God. I am comforted when friends wish nice thoughts for me, but to hear that God gives mere moral support and maybe he can do something, but understand that he’s just doing the best he can…that’s not very comforting to me.

No, it is hearing that “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” as attested in Proverbs 16:4 that actually comforts me. I don’t expect to understand why something bad happens to me or to any particular person. But what I want to know is that somehow my God is in it. Why? Because I trust him. I trust him to know what he is doing, and I trust him to be good. I trust him to somehow work everything out to a good end.

It gives me comfort to know that he is not constantly reacting to everything that is happening, trying to make sense of a world gone out of control, but that he is actively guiding all that happens for his purposes. And what he has revealed about his purposes gives me hope. His purposes include redemption, justice, and glory.

Let me finish reading the Isaiah 55 passage. It continues:

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

          and do not return there but water the earth,

     making it bring forth and sprout,

          giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11      so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

          it shall not return to me empty,

     but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

          and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 “For you shall go out in joy

          and be led forth in peace;

     the mountains and the hills before you

          shall break forth into singing,

          and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13      Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

          instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

     and it shall make a name for the Lord,

          an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Because God is on this different plane from us, he is able to see that his word will accomplish what he purposes, and ultimately what he purposes is joy. Our destiny is not a never-ending cycle of woes and some joys. God’s providence is moving all things forward to the great good that he has purposed.

I don’t know about you, but that helps me through the trials I experience and observe. I might not understand or like the chapter of the book I am in, but knowing the ending and that we will get to that ending comforts me and inspires me.

3. The doctrine of providence addresses our deepest yearning for significance.

An accusation made against the doctrine is that it de-humanizes man by taking away his autonomy. We are mere puppets or robots acting as we are programmed. We can be discarded at will and replaced at will.

That line of thinking has never impacted me, I think for a couple of reasons. One is the way God works out providence. To put it naively, I don’t feel controlled. I would have preferred a greater sense of control in putting this sermon together. I certainly would like to see you being controlled to be amazingly moved and inspired. Once more, I know what I’ve said is naive, but then I am but a man and God is…well, he is the Almighty Incomprehensible God. I’m content to leave it with that.

Furthermore, providence actually infuses me with a sense of significance. To say that my life is significant, it has to be significant to somebody. Now, I have loved ones who are willing to raise their hands if a count has to be made about who thinks my life is significant. But I know this. Someday I will be forgotten. I further know that all that I have tried to accomplish may come to nothing. There is that haunting refrain of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” that lingers in the back of my brain. And there is the “what could have been” thoughts – what I could have accomplished if…what I should have accomplished if only…This job that I do, does it really matter? Of what use am I now that I am sick, blew my opportunity…

Well, evidently I am significant. The Almighty God has created me, and he has chosen to use me to further his purposes. It may be to do great things in the eyes of man – I like that. Or it may be to live in obscurity – I don’t like that so much. But whichever the case, he is using me in his mysterious ways to serve his purpose which will end in his glory. And he will not forget me. I will not be forgotten – ever. I have been given a role to play in my Lord’s drama. The audience may not remember my lines, but my Lord does and will always. Is this not what significance really is about – to be known and honored by the Creator?

4. It should lead us to thankfulness.

I am thankful that what will take place after this worship service is not by chance. I am thankful that as I look back over my life and see the dumb things I have done, that even those things were being used by God for my good. I am thankful that bad things that have happened to me have nevertheless served God’s purpose. I am thankful that my life is not summed up with “only if,” but rather with God is completing the good work that he began in me (cf Philippians 1:6). I am thankful that whatever life throws at me actually comes from my Father who gives me what I can bear and what is for my good and what will ultimately glorify him, so that I don’t have to hang my head in eternity feeling like I blew my chances.

God is at work. He is at work in everything out there and everything in me and around me. I have a destiny – a real destiny. It is not something I’ve made up to make me feel significant. It is not a goal that I might falter attaining because I got sick, or made a mistake, or was waylaid by circumstance.

Whatever happens, God is not just looking from his heaven and caring about what happens to me. He is here; he is in it, whatever that “it” may be, and however painful “it” may be.

When all is said and done, what will matter to all of us is whether or not our Creator regards us and what we do as significant. The novelist Thomas Hardy, who regarded life as merely a string of chance events, writes of a scene in The Return of the Native. A young man is horrified by news he has received. He goes out of cottage filled with turmoil in his soul and he before him is “only the imperturbable countenance of the heat, which, having defied the cataclysmal onsets of centuries, reduced to insignificance by its seamed and antique features the wildest turmoil of a single man.”

Be assured that whatever your Creator involves himself in – and according to the doctrine of providence he is involved in everything – then what happens to you and in you and through you is significant.

Let me close with an explanation as to why I feel so confident about all that I have said. The reason, quite simply, is the cross.

It is the cross that assures me that I am not a puppet. The Father does not give his Son to die for puppets.

It is the cross that assures me God is in control, that he is good, and that the hope laid before me is real. I look in the Old Testament and see not only the prophecy that directly speaks of Christ’s coming and his work but also how the whole course of history leads up to the cross; I read of what follows, of the foundation set for the course of history to follow even to now, and I am persuaded that God is in control.

And God must be good. However baffled and disturbed I become with the presence of evil, the cross impresses upon me how little I know the holiness of God, the horror of my own sinfulness, and the demands of justice. But even more, it overwhelms me with how little I comprehend the love and mercy of God. And when I see the good that flows from the cross, changing lives, bringing peace in spite of and through the sinners it touches, then I rest assure that the God who is in control is good and doing good.

And I take comfort in the hope that the cross gives me. Because I see in it how God through providence kept his promise to send a Redeemer, so I trust by that same providence he will keep his promise that my Redeemer will return and my hope of eternal glory will come true.

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