by Theodore VanderGroe
Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. —1 PETER 4:19
Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things?
Answer: 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.
The words of the apostle Peter, read to you as our text, encompass the very delightful, precious, and comforting duty of believers to be patient and persevering in all their justly deserved adversities and tribulations that befall them here upon earth according to the will of God. It is an exhortation that they grow not slack in faith and sanctification, but rather, that they cast all their burdens upon the Lord their God and “commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.” Both in nature and in grace, He will not forsake His creature and the work of His hands, but rather, He will faithfully sustain, preserve, and protect them, and graciously provide all that is needed for time and eternity.
Beloved, it is not our intention to give a detailed exposition of these precious words of the apostle, but only to use them as a foundation for the subject matter that we presently wish to consider with you: the practical and beneficial truths implied by the doctrine of God’s providence, as addressed in the previous question of this Lord’s Day of the Catechism. However, given the richness of this subject matter, we could then only address these benefits briefly, and therefore we postponed our exposition of these benefits to a future occasion—an occasion the Lord in His mercy is now pleased to grant us.
With the help of the Lord, and by His grace, we desire to examine in greater detail and to expound for you Question and Answer 28 of the Catechism. Herein the instructor posits what instruction and benefit a believer receives from his faith in the providence of God, “whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds” His creation, infusing it with His almighty and everywhere present power. In so doing, He governs and directs all things in such a manner that nothing, not even the most insignificant event, transpires by chance, but rather, by His power and according to His will.
In light of this, the instructor asks in Question 28, “What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things?,” to which he responds, “That we may be patient in adversity, etc.”
The instructor extracts from the doctrine of God’s providence a twofold instruction that is both beneficial and comforting for the believing child of God. The one component pertains to the present, whereas the other pertains to the future.
Before we consider the particulars, we must first grasp the real intent of what the instructor is saying. He does not teach here that this beneficial and comforting doctrine of God’s providence is applicable indiscriminately to all men, and thus also to all sinners who live apart from God. Rather, it is applicable only to God’s children, the true believers, for this is evident from the previous question, which is intimately connected to the present question. Here the instructor, by this confession of faith, leads God’s people to embrace the truth that God, “the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” is, for the sake of Christ His Son, their God and their Father on whom they rely so entirely, etc.
The instructor is here speaking of such true believers who embrace this God, the creator of heaven and earth, as their God and Father in Christ, and fully trust in Him. It is regarding them of whom he testifies that God’s providence is subservient to make them “patient in adversity, etc.” And indeed, how shall an unbeliever who still lives in sin, and thus without God and without Christ, make use of the doctrine of God’s providence to his comfort and encouragement? How should he surrender himself with a humble and childlike confidence to God and His gracious and all-encompassing providence? Since he still lives entirely unto himself and apart from God and His blessed communion, it means that as yet he does not acknowledge God for who He is. How would he truly be able to trust God? The Scriptures say, “And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee” (Ps. 9:10).
Therefore, the blind, unbelieving, and natural man, who lives apart from God and His communion, cannot extract the least benefit from God’s providence, nor can he secure any true comfort from it. Although he sees, acknowledges, and believes in God’s providence, and desires to comfort and sustain himself by it, he cannot do so. When he is called upon to be patient, he can do so only compulsively, having no other option but to say with the unholy men of this world: “What can we do about it? It is God’s will that it be so, and thus we have to suffer whether we like it or not.”
An unconverted person in his adversity therefore submits himself to a fatum stoicum, that is, to an inescapable destiny that has been determined regarding him. That destiny, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, he cannot escape, saying, “There is nothing I can do about it. This is how it has to be.” It would indeed be an amazing thing if a natural and unbelieving person were able to use God’s providence for his benefit and encouragement in all his trials, for he is opposed to God and God is opposed to him. This means that if he does not repent, God’s entire providence will be subservient to his eternal perdition and damnation.
It is therefore self-evident that all the comfort and benefit to be derived from God’s providence is the exclusive privilege of God’s beloved people and children, true believers, who by faith are intimately and eternally united and bound to God in Christ, and of whom God declares, “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 11:20).
It is of them that the instructor is speaking here, showing what precious instructions and blessed benefit they may derive from the providence of their God and heavenly Father regarding:
1. their present state; and
2. their future state.
Regarding their present state, God’s believing children derive instructions and benefits by means of the active power and exercise of their faith, namely:
1. they are patient in all adversity; and
2. they are thankful in all prosperity.
As to the first, God’s providence teaches and enables believers to be patient in all adversity. God’s children, while in this world, are almost always led in ways of adversity and tribulations, and are thereby led by God unto salvation. This is a truth clearly and abundantly taught in the Holy Scriptures—and it is also compellingly confirmed by the experience of all the saints. In Psalm 34:19, we read of the Lord Jesus and His people, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” and in John 16:33, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” No sooner does a believer come to the Lord Jesus by faith than he is immediately enrolled in His school of affliction, and there he hears the following instruction: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The Lord’s apostles did not teach anything different from this. We read of Paul and Barnabas, that they traveled throughout the region, “confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
It is true that the enemies of the church at that time initiated severe persecution and manifold tribulations toward her, from which we, by God’s grace, are still exempt. However, regarding the specific state of a believer, our present situation is still the same as has always been true for the people of God. The rule that Paul sets before us in 2 Timothy 3:12 will therefore not readily be changed: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” This has been true from the beginning and will remain so until the Lord Jesus will have “put all things under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:27).
However, this is not applicable to impenitent sinners, for they are the “men of the world, which have their portion in this life” (Ps. 17:14). Frequently they enjoy great prosperity and temporal blessings while here on earth; that is, they are exempt from the special crosses and adversities of God’s children. “They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men” (Ps. 73:5).
However, this is entirely different in regard to God’s devout children, for they must necessarily be led by God in ways of manifold crosses and adversities if they are to be saved and be delivered from sin and the flesh. Their entire salvation consists, on the one hand, of the mortification of both the flesh and their earthly members, with which they must contend continually, and on the other hand, of their intimate union with God in Christ by faith. If, however, their flesh is to be continually crucified, mortified, and subdued, and if they are to be increasingly prepared and rendered fit “to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12), this cannot be achieved in any other way than by a way of adversity and cross-bearing. Our flesh will never be mortified and subdued in any way but one in which pain, sorrow, and adversity are keenly felt. This is the reason for all the adversities and tribulations that God’s children encounter in this vale of tears—the one experiencing this to a greater and the other to a lesser degree.
Rather than lamenting about the state of God’s children, murmuring against God, or discouragement because of adversity, God’s providence yields the opposite: His children are patient in all their adversity. They are quiet, submissive, and patient, permitting God to execute His supremely wise and adorable counsel regarding them, being at peace with His actions and government.
Faith extracts a wondrous strength from God’s providence:
First, God’s children may know hereby, and believe with certainty, that all the adversities to which they are subjected, even those that are frequently caused by their own sins, are sent to them by their merciful God and heavenly Father, and that nothing takes place outside of His holy will and divine command. Regarding this, the prophet says, “Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6).
Second, God’s children may know with certainty that their heavenly Father and gracious God subjects them to all their adversity for no other reason than to promote their well-being and salvation—though they may not be able to understand the manner in which He accomplishes those matters. They may, commensurate with the grace given them, trust with a greater or lesser degree of strength and peace of heart that God is their God, and that in Christ they are reconciled with Him, and therefore He no longer harbors any hatred or wrath toward them because of their sins. Rather, in His fatherly favor and grace, He but chastises them through adversity, for He loves them and knows what is best for them. They may therefore have full confidence “that all things work together for good to them” (Rom. 8:28).
Third, God’s children may also be confident that in His time and in His providence, God will remove all adversity when it is no longer needed, and that in the meantime, He will not impose any more adversity upon them than they are able to bear. The apostle strengthens and comforts believers accordingly when he writes, “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
This is then the first benefit a child of God may extract from God’s providence.
The instructor adds another benefit God’s children derive from the gracious providence of their God, namely, that they are “thankful in prosperity.” Besides sending adversity, God also frequently grants His children much prosperity and happiness—not only for the soul, but also for the body. This is so when they enjoy health, quietness, and peace; when they are blessed in their temporal profession or trade; and occasionally when riches, honor, prestige, prosperity, etc. are their portion. However, such temporal prosperity is often very detrimental to God’s children and causes them to forget God by cleaving with their hearts to the vain dust of this world—as David experienced in Psalm 119:25. Agur, the man of God, was very fearful of this, praying to the Lord not only that He would give him no poverty, but also that He would give him no riches, “lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD?” (Prov. 30:9).
God’s providence, therefore, by His grace, is primarily a means whereby He sanctifies to the souls of believers the prosperity He grants and bestows upon them in His benevolent care, and thereby leads them to Himself and His communion. It teaches them that all the blessings they may enjoy proceed to them from the hand of the Lord, and that in and of themselves, they are entirely incapable and powerless to secure even the least blessing. They thus learn that the Lord alone is the fountain, creator, and giver of all these things, and that if it were to please Him, He could take all things from them in a moment. In short, God’s providence causes His people to see and acknowledge daily and every single moment that they receive all the blessings for both soul and body from Jehovah God alone. They observe that God, as a faithful Father, continually cares for them, and that in every conceivable way, and at times abundantly, He is continually engaged in providing for all their needs according to both soul and body.
The more God’s children may see this, the more they will be led to end in their God and to glorify Him with their hearts and mouths. No one would believe this except they who have experienced how the good providence of God, when applied to the heart, leads us to praise and magnify the Lord. It causes us to acknowledge that we are entirely dependent upon Him, and that all we have proceeds every moment from His benevolent and gracious hand, causing the soul to exclaim at times, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever!” (Rom. 11:36). God’s children are thus wrought upon and in some measure are enabled “in every thing [to] give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning [them]” (1 Thess. 5:18).
The instructor posits this as being the second benefit that issues forth from the doctrine of God’s providence in regard to the present. He then proceeds to address the great benefit we may derive from the doctrine of God’s providence in regard to the future.
The instructor thus proceeds from the present to the future, teaching that the providence of God also yields the benefit “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.”
The instructor teaches two things here:
1. the steadfast trust that, by virtue of His gracious providence, God’s children may put in His immutable love in regard to the future; and
2. the foundation upon which such a trust is founded, namely, that “all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.”
Regarding the first, faith in God’s providence also prompts believers to put their full trust in the Lord and in His love regarding all things that are yet to come. There is nothing of which we are so ignorant as that which is yet to come. Our daily experience consists of all that the Lord causes us to encounter. However, we do not have the least certainty and knowledge as to what will be encountered and experienced by us in future days, and how we will then fare in body and soul. In His adorable wisdom, the Lord has hidden this from us and all other men, and no one but the Lord can reveal something of it to us. The carnal mind, however, being utterly hostile toward God, is entirely inclined not only to dabble in that which pertains to the future, but it even, so to speak, takes matters out of God’s hands and places them into its own hands. From this proceeds all the anxiety of carnal men regarding those future events with which they are preoccupied and in which they run ahead of the Lord. In Matthew 6, the Savior earnestly admonishes His people not to do so. There He stipulates that believers should not at all give in to unbelieving anxiety about the future—not even about tomorrow. On the one hand, their concern and anxiety are entirely unnecessary, for they cannot thereby add one cubit to their stature. On the other hand, since God is their heavenly Father and, by His good and gracious providence, cares for them, He will continue to do so until the very end.
When the doctrine of providence is bound upon the hearts of God’s children, it is a powerful and most suitable means to keep them from succumbing to unbelieving anxiety about all that is yet future for them and fully hidden from them. It motivates them to cast all their cares and concerns upon the Lord their God and gracious Father, having the confidence that, as the instructor puts it, no creature shall separate them from His love.
The reason for God’s people having such strong confidence in the Lord’s providence is rooted in the fact that God is their God, that they are His beloved in Christ, and that God in His love is eternally immutable. It thus follows that they shall eternally remain secure in God’s love and that nothing shall ever be able to separate them from that love (Rom. 8:39). Faith rests securely upon the immovable foundation that God is immutable in His love, and the soul that knows God and is united to Him exercises such faith very readily and by His grace. Thus, God’s people consider specifically how their God and Father, who is utterly faithful and immutable in His love toward them, by His eternal power and providence, preserves, engages, and governs all things. We considered this in our previous sermon.
All of this causes the Lord’s people to see and acknowledge clearly that their beloved God and Father fully cares for them, that He will immovably and immutably continue to do so, that He has fully engaged Himself to preserve, protect, sustain, defend, and govern them, and that He will never fail to do so, given that His grace and love toward them are immutable. All of this cannot but cause God’s children to cease being anxious about whatever is still before them, and to conduct themselves, as Peter exhorts them in 1 Peter 5:7, “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.”
Oh, it cannot be expressed in words what peace of soul and strong confidence in God it engenders when God’s providence is thus rightly considered by us! The soul is then set free from all anxiety and needless apprehension by which, until now, it has been so much tossed to and fro. God then works in His children and takes away all anxiety and concern. They surrender themselves to the Lord with inner delight, joy, and heartfelt willingness, saying with Father Abraham regarding all that is yet to come, “Jehovah-Jireh,” that is, “the LORD shall provide” (Gen. 22:14). And with that truth, they are at peace and rest in and upon the Lord, conducting themselves as a weaned child with Him, and letting themselves be treated by Him as pleases Him.
What a precious and fitting disposition this is for God’s children, for then the Lord is supremely glorified by them, and they receive and enjoy most from the Lord! Blessed are the children of God who may enjoy this in a great measure and so commit their way unto the Lord and trust in Him. They then in all things continually wait upon the Lord, and their souls are at peace.
However, as has been stated earlier, if someone truly is to make use of God’s providence in such fashion and derive from it this precious and glorious benefit, he must be united with God in Christ. He must have grounds for trusting that the Lord is His God and His gracious Father, in whose love he is truly comprehended and from which he cannot be separated by any creature to all eternity. If someone may thus call God his God, and may have such confidence regarding God’s love for himself, then the truth “that nothing shall separate us from His love” can very readily be embraced and retained by faith. For as faith yields to God’s children many other compelling reasons to trust in this truth, so His providence also yields a solid foundation for their confidence, for according to the instructor, it also teaches them that “all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” We clearly confirmed this when we expounded the doctrine of God’s providence. We then observed that there is no power other than that which proceeds from God, and that God’s power alone sustains, engages, governs, and directs the entire creation and all creatures. It is thus God the Lord alone who, as the original and supreme cause of all things, does and works all things, and the creature is therefore entirely and fully dependent upon Him.
Beloved, if this were not so, God could then not be the absolute Lord and king of the world. Furthermore, it would then be impossible for believers to have this complete confidence in Him and His immutable love, of which we have spoken, for here below, God’s children are fully surrounded by their most bitter and mortal enemies. Satan, the world, their own flesh, and all of depraved humanity conspire to bring about their ruin and oppose them as much as darkness opposes light, for God’s children know of no better friendship than with God alone and all that proceeds from Him. Therefore, if creatures were in the least measure independent from God as to their power, they would surely engage all their energy to bring about the ruin of the Lord’s people, and would endeavor to separate them eternally from God and His love. The devil would not rest until he had utterly destroyed God’s kingdom.
Reality, however, is entirely different. By virtue of God’s providence, God’s children now acknowledge that “all creatures [without distinction], are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” They perceive that their God and Father is king and the sovereign Lord and governor of all creatures. Therefore, with great joy they sing, “The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength” (Ps. 93:1).
Consequently, they fear no creature, however strong and mighty God has made such creatures to be. They know that such creatures cannot possibly use their power to their detriment and harm, and they cannot exercise this power any more or less than permitted and decreed by God. This causes all fear of the creature to vanish completely, for God is seated upon the throne of His glory. The soul takes hold of both God’s eternal and immutable love, as well as His providence, and fully and securely rests in them, exclaiming, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
Behold, dear reader, so great, precious, and glorious is the benefit that the believer derives from the doctrine of God’s providence; that is, when by faith he considers it rightly and, by God’s grace, appropriates and makes use of it as such!
We believe that we have hereby sufficiently expounded this doctrine as articulated by the instructor. If I had more time at my disposal, I would not only be able to confirm conclusively the sin of an unregenerate world and its atheistic conduct toward God’s providence, but I would also address the sin of God’s people—and thus of true believers. We will, however, but briefly address the root from which this proceeds with the one as well as the other.
You who are natural and graceless men do not derive any strength, comfort, and benefit from the Lord’s providence, but rather, in all things, you are living your life in an atheistic and unbelieving manner, as though there were no divine providence. All of this is evident from your conduct. This proceeds from the fact that you neither know God the Lord nor are united to Him by faith in the Lord Jesus. You should have heard this sufficiently from our sermon; that is, if you truly noted what was said. Therefore, if ever you are to be cured from your damnable and wretched deficiency, and are to derive true benefit, strength, and comfort from God’s providence, do not continue any longer to live apart from God. Instead, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20)—and do so without any further delay! Submit yourselves to being taught regarding the counsel of God’s grace, whereby He, in Christ His Son, is willing to be eternally reconciled with and united to hell-worthy, ungodly, and impotent sinners, not imputing their sins unto them, but rather, receiving them in grace and becoming to them a God of full salvation. Oh, that you would become acquainted with this grace of God in Christ, and wholeheartedly approve of, receive, and embrace it, so that God may become your portion! You would then become the recipient of all the benefits of His precious providence that have been set before you.
As far as God’s people and children are concerned, there are two things we want to set before them, and oh, that the Lord would bless what is said to their souls!
1. If they are to derive such proper benefit, strength, and advantage from God’s providence as we have instructed you, they must endeavor to ascertain and be increasingly assured by faith that God is their portion. It is an incontrovertible truth that the better one is acquainted with the fact that God is his portion, the more fervently one is able to derive benefit from God’s providence. All God’s children must therefore give diligence to make their calling and election sure, for when they do these things, they shall never fall (2 Peter 1:10).
2. The other matter regarding which we desire to exhort the Lord’s people is that by grace they would acquaint themselves with the Lord and engage in much spiritual communion with Him in Christ, for the more communion one has with someone, the better one becomes acquainted with his person, work, and capability, and the more one is united and knit to him.
May both these matters be achieved in God’s children, and may they by faith in the Lord Jesus abound in this. Oh, they would certainly be a much more attractive and glorious people than is presently the case! This most gracious and glorious providence of Jehovah would then be known, worshiped, embraced, and praised to a far greater extent. May the Lord, by His grace and by His power, thus work in the hearts of His people, doing so in Christ Jesus, to whom, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honor, praise, and worship to all eternity. Amen.
Source: The Christian's Only Comfort in Life and Death: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism by Theodore VanderGroe