The
Theology of
Providence

 

Part 1 of a series
God's Words and His Works
by Dr. Andrew Fountain

I want to begin by asking the question, "Does God only speak through the Bible?" Let me give you a couple of examples to get you thinking.

Back in the last century, there was an old charcoal burner called John Barry, who lived with his wife in a mountainous part of the USA. In December of 1874, heíd been sick for some time and he hadnít been able to get his winter provisions in. The snow came very severely and he and his wife were completely cut off from the outside world and didnít have enough food to survive. He was a godly man and he and his wife decided that they would cast themselves on the Lord. They knelt down to pray crying to God that He would provide food for them. As they prayed into the night, ten miles away one of the deacons of the church couldnít sleep. He woke up suddenly, feeling a very strong burden to take food to John. He woke his wife up and said, "Iíve got to take food to John Barry tomorrow." Early in the morning he and his son packed his sleigh with a monthís supply of food and hitched a team of horses. After a five hour struggle they managed to get through to the house of John Barry where they found the couple still praying. I want to ask you, was God speaking to that deacon at that time? Was it an answer to prayer or a co-incidence?

Hereís another question to get you thinking. Back in 1990 my father, David Fountain, was given a sabbatical by the church. As he considered how to spend the time, he felt that it would be very profitable to go to New Zealand. However, he wanted it to be Godís will, not his own, so he set aside Thursday morning to pray that he should know Godís will. The following day he picked up his mail and there was a letter from a man in New Zealand. The man wrote that he had a cottage by a lake which he had completely redecorated "and it is waiting for you." He added that there was also a car for their use. Was God speaking or was it just a co-incidence?

1. Special and General Revelation

There are two kinds of ways that God speaks to us or reveals himself to us, and these are called by theologians: Special and General revelation.

W
O
R
D
S

By Special Revelation we mean Godís WordóHis perfect, inspired, authoritative Word By General Revelation we mean Godís WorksóHis actions in creation and His actions in ruling this earth and being in control of every event that happens.

W
O
R
K
S

The Bible: Before Jesus came, this written word was not complete so God used prophets to reveal Himself to mankind and to give instruction. But now this special revelation is complete. It is called Special because it is Godís very words addressed to us in a unique way. He speaks directly to us in a way that leaves us in no doubt of truth. In Hebrews 1:1-2 we read, "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son." A. Creation: In the Book of Romans Paul tells us that the whole of creation tells about God. "For since the creation of the world Godís invisible qualitiesóhis eternal power and divine natureóhave been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." [Rom. 1:20]
B: Events of Life: But Godís actions have not stopped with creation. He is constantly active in this world, in providential care of His people, in judgment, and in displaying His character.

A. Creation

The creation is General Revelation from God. Psalm 19 is about God revealing Himself and the first few verses tell us that the stars and the sun are speaking about God. They are telling people all over the world about His majesty.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

The creation including the birds, animals, plants, the mountains, everything, demonstrates what God is like. The living world around us is intricate, from the beauty of a tiny flower to the towering majesty of a giant redwood. God seems to delight in diversity and in strange and wonderful creatures, such as ants that plant and harvest underground gardens, fish that fly, birds that swim, and tiny flying mammals that are almost blind but use the echoes of their squeaks to "see." There are animals that are so comical, strange and "improbable" that we laugh, and others with a beauty and grandeur that makes us gasp. All of these teach us what God is like as a person.

B: Events of Life

Psalm 29 is about a thunderstorm and poetically calls it ĎThe Voice of the Lordí. "The voice of the Lord is over the waters; The God of glory thunders; The Lord is over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; The voice of the Lord is full of majesty." [Psalm 29:3-4]

Is thunder really Godís voice? Yes, in a way it is, because God is speaking in every event that happens. He is not trying to talk to us in actual words in the thunder, but He is communicating His power and majesty (v4) for everyone to see and hear. Next time you are caught in a thunderstorm, remember this Psalm and be reminded of Godís power.

In Deuteronomy 3:24 we read, "O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand, for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do anything like Your works and Your mighty deeds?"

Godís works and His mighty deeds show and demonstrate what kind of God He is. Everything that happens to you, from the tiniest thing to the greatest, is under Godís power. The whole course of human history reveals to us the nature of God. It is in the sending of Jesus Christ that we have the clearest revelation of God: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son..." [John 3:16 ]

All these things are through Jesus Christ

So we see that there are several different ways that we learn about God, but one thing they have in common is that they all come to us through Jesus Christ.

The Bible: John 1:1 tells us that Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible was written by Jesus' prophets and Jesus' apostles.

Creation: John 1:3 tells us that all things were made through Jesus Christ.

Events in our lives: Colossians 1:17 tells us that "in Him all things consist." Jesus is now reigning in poweróeverything that happens is through Him. In the book of Revelation we see that the Lamb of God is reigning and bringing to pass world events.

Christ even dwells in us through the Spirit and comforts, encourages and prompts us. 2 Tim 4:22 reads: "The Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit"

So, God speaks to us by special revelation and by general revelation.

2. Words Speak Clearer than Works

Letís go back to Psalm 19 where David has been talking about how the stars and sun declare God. We only learn a limited amount through the stars. What do you think we can learn about God? We can learn His greatness.

We can learn about His strength, His power, His mightiness. But there is a limit, isnít there, of what we can learn by looking at the stars and the sun.

We cannot learn about salvation through the stars. We cannot learn about sin and Jesus Christ and the cross; faith, repentance and everlasting life. David talks about Godís creation for the first six verses of the psalm, but in verse 7 he begins to contrast the creation (general revelation) with the Word of God (special revelation):

Itís only Godís Word that can convert our soul. Only Godís Word can make wise the simple, and cause our hearts to rejoice in our salvation.

Without Godís words,
it is very difficult to understand his works.

Suppose you fall over and break your leg this afternoon. What is God saying to you? That is very difficult to answer.

  maybe He is telling you to be more careful

  maybe you were doing something you should not have been doing

  maybe you need a rest, or to learn patience

  maybe you are being given an opportunity to witness to the ambulance man

  since God has not told you in His Word, it is extremely difficult to be sure why

Itís very, very difficult to understand what it is and we can get into bondage trying to discern some kind of message from everything that happens to us. Iím not saying that we should. There probably is not a specific message other than that God is working out His sovereign purposes. Ultimately, as we look back on our lives, we will see that Godís love and wisdom are demonstrated in the intricate way that all things work together. However, we may not see this at the time and it will not be till heaven that we shall see the full and glorious pattern.

There are some events of history which God has explained to us very clearly. For example, when Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians, we are not left to ponder why on earth this should happen. God has told us in His Word and explained it to us. 2 Kings 17:7-23 tells us that it was because of their idolatrous unfaithfulness to Him. The event was designed to communicate to Israel, Judah and the other nations that God is righteous.

What if it is bad weather tomorrow? What is God saying? Once it was bad weather when the Israelites fought their enemies, hailstones came down and enabled a mighty enemy to be defeated. (Josh. 10:11) God told us in His word that He did this for His people. If God tells us why, then we know for sure.

Godís words are needed to understand His works, to understand the events of life.

Sometimes we can get a general understanding from principles in His word. e.g. When my family moved to Canada, people at Jarvis Street were very kind to us and helped us set up home. God tells us in the Bible that Christians show love to other Christians because of Christ living in their hearts. So the Word of God gave a general explanation of His works in this matter.

So, we can only understand what God is saying in His Works (creation, the events of life), by means of His Words (the Bible).

Although we can never be 100% sure why God does a particular thing today, or what God is saying through it, we can use the principles of special revelation to give us some idea of what is happening. For example, Revelation 9:20-21, 16:9-11 tells us that God brings disasters to the earth so that men might repent.

There are some answers to prayer that are so clear that we can be fairly certain that it is Godís direct answer. For example: George MŁller ran an orphanage in England in the last century. One day the orphanage was ready to sit down for breakfast but had no milk. George MŁller prayed that God would provide milk for them and they gave thanks for the meal. MŁller believed that God would be a father of the fatherless and would provide. As he was praying, there was a knock on the door. It was the milkman who said, "The milk cart outside has broken down and I canít go any further. The milk will waste if nothing happens to it. Can you use any milk?" Was God acting in response to George MŁllerís prayer? I believe he was, because we know in Scripture that God answers the prayers of His people and so we can interpret these events in that light.

Godís Words speak authoritatively,
but His Works do not

There is a danger when we try to claim that God has spoken by events in an authoritative manner. Let me give you an example. Suppose the pastor of a church is considering whether to move to another church. He seeks God as to whether he should move, and then a series of events happen in his life, a series of providences, which seem to indicate very clearly to him that he should stay in that church. That is fine, there is nothing wrong with that. But if the pastor stands up in the pulpit and says, "God has spoken to me and told me that I am to stay here," itís wrong because he is now saying that God has spoken to him in an authoritative way that he can impose on others, and is claiming that the providence of God is on a level with the Scriptures. It is not!


The Scriptures
are the only
authoritative way that
God speaks


The Scriptures are the only authoritative way that God speaks. The only time that we can stand up and say that God has spoken is when we accurately interpret the Scriptures. When God works through events, it is always subject to our explanation. We can never claim that it is authoritative. All we can do is say, "it seems to me that this is God speaking."

Once I felt a strong burden to pray for somebody because they were in danger. I prayed for them and it turned out that the person was in no particular danger at that time, and I was mistaken. Another time I had an impulse to call somebody whom I had not spoken to for a year. When he picked the phone up he said, "Why did you call me? How did you know?" It turned out that he was on the point of committing suicide at that time. It seems that God had put it in my heart to speak and to call them at that time. But Iím fallible. I can make mistakes. I can be misled as to whether God is speaking. Itís only Godís Word that is infallible.

3. When the Works don't seem to match the Words

Next I want to look at the book of Habakkuk. The nation of Judah at that time had become very corrupt, yet God does not seem to be doing anything about it. The prophet keeps crying to God but He does not seem to hear. Habakkuk is in great distress, because on the one hand he sees the events of life that are happening, terrible wickedness and gross injustices, but on the other hand he sees Godís Word saying that God is going to deal with those things. He is trying to match up these two things and says, "God, what are you doing? What I see happening doesnít match up with what your Word says. What is the answer?" "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear? Even cry out to you, "Violence!" And you will not save. Why do you show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds." [Hab 1:2-4] We can experience times like this in our own lives. We would like our circumstances to be something like this:

Personal enjoyment of: Material blessings:
friends health
kindness prosperity
faithfulness security
family satisfying work

When we see everything happening as we expect it to, as we would want it to; when we enjoy friends, kindness, faithfulness, family, health, prosperity, security, satisfying work, then itís easy to believe Godís Word. When Godís works and His Word seem to match up, everything is fine. It doesnít need any faith. Being a Christian is easy. Thereís no problem being a Christian when everything is wonderful and God seems to be answering every prayer straight away. Any difficulty we have we pray about it and immediately God answers it. There is no reason to doubt.

But what about when things look more like this:

Personal experience: Material problems:
loneliness sickness
hostility poverty
betrayal disaster
bereavement unemployment

When our personal experience is loneliness, people show hostility, we are betrayed by close friends, we are bereaved, when we have physical problems, such as sickness, poverty and financial difficulty, disaster or unemployment, what happens then? What if we bring these things to God and God doesnít seem to answer them? We say, "God, look, Youíve promised me that You will comfort me when Iím lonely, but Iím still lonely. I have all these promises in your Word, but when I look at the events of my life, they donít seem to match up with what You say." What happens to us in situations like this? I believe that this is one of the key questions of Scripture. 

Abraham had trouble matching these things up. Godís words to Abraham were, "I will give you a son." And what happened? No son! Abraham got older. No son! Sarah got older. Nearly a hundred years old. No son! Too old to have children. Still no son! The months, the seasons, the years, the decades went by and still no son. The events of life were that he and his wife were getting older. Godís promises hadnít happened. There was a gap between Godís words and the events of life which was getting wider and wider. Twenty five years went by before God gave him a son.

This is one of the biggest tests that Christians can have. Can I really trust God? Will God really be faithful to me? Will He answer my prayers? Does God really love me? Does He really care for me? 

How did Abraham bridge that gap between the events of life and the promises of God? He bridged it with faith. It was his faith that clung to Godís promises and interpreted the events of life accordingly.

Faith bridges the gap between 
Godís Words and His Works

This theme comes up dozens of times in Scripture, because this test is the essence of faith. In Habakkuk, the prophet pleads with God for an explanation.

In 2:1 he has said his piece and he sets himself to wait for Godís answer: "I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected." He says, "There has got to be an answer to this. What is God going to say to me? What is the answer to this problem of the disparity between Godís words and Godís works?"

The first part of Godís answer is that if you wait, you will see that My works will match My words: "Then the Lord answered me and said: ĎWrite the visionÖ For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lieÖ wait for it; Because it will surely comeÖí" (Hab 2:2-3)

The second part of the answer is that he is told what God will do: the wicked will be punished (2:5-20), but "the just shall live by his faith." (2:4) Those who do not disbelieve Godís words but hold on to His words by faith, those are the ones who will live.

Itís only by faith that people can, as Habakkuk here, grasp Godís words while looking at the events of life and hold on to both of them. I like to picture the Christian as someone between two railway boxcars, feet attached to one of them and trying to hold on to the other. We are stretched more and more as the gap between Godís words and His works grows wider. Our faith is being stretched and tested. Both Habakkuk and Abraham experienced this.

This is not some interesting but secondary teaching, but is one of the most central and important concepts in the Bible. It runs from the beginning of Genesis, in Eden, to the end of Revelation when the saints cry out "How long?" It is the gap between the seen and the unseen (2 Cor 4:18, Heb 11:1), the visible and the invisible (Heb 11:27), the present age and the age to come (Rom 8:18-39), a gap that in this world can only be bridged by faith. 

In the garden of Eden there was a tree that looked very good (Gen 3:6). God said that to eat of it would bring death. Satan whispered that God did not really care about Adam and Eve and was lying. Adam and Eve were tempted to explain the events of life by Satanís words, not Godís words. They doubted Godís words and fell.

Joseph was given dreams by God, yet many years of suffering passed before they were fulfilled. Through all that time he hung on obediently, preferring to go to prison than to let go of Godís moral commands.

David was anointed in Bethlehem as a promise from God that one day he would be king. Everything seemed to be going fine. He was brought up to the battle against the Philistines, he killed Goliath with his sling and it looked like the promise was going to become true. But then it all went wrong and he was hunted for his life by Saul. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he was hunted down for his life. What had happened to the promises? He was tempted to doubt God. Near the end he seemed to give up hope (1 Sam 27:1). Why did God put him through such a grueling trial? Because this is how faith is developed. 

Another person in Scripture, perhaps the most striking example of all, is Job. Jobís faith was tremendously stretched, but the events that were happening to him didnít seem to match up with what God said. God said, "if you serve Me and you love Me and are faithful to Me I will bless you," yet calamities happened to faithful and upright Job. His friends said, "Itís because youíve sinned," but Job knew that wasnít the reason. Jobís wife said, "Curse God and die. Let go of His words." But Job didnít do that, he clung to Godís words in the same way that Habakkuk did. He was stretched to breaking point between these two. Eventually we know that God answered Job and restored to him everything. Godís words and His works matched up perfectly.

Have you ever had this experience? Maybe you are going through this experience right nowóyour life seems overwhelming, and you cry to God, "Lord, where are you in my life? These things donít seem to match up. Youíve promised me these things Lord and look at my life. Look at the difficulties that Iím in." Maybe you struggle with loneliness, maybe you struggle with financial difficulties. Maybe there is sickness or some other problem that others donít know about, and you struggle with it, and say, "Lord where are you?"

You are tempted to doubt God, and to say, "I canít trust God any longer." But rest assured, what you are suffering is common to the pattern of Scripture, because it is the way God builds our faith, the way God enables us to grow in our faith. You are tempted to doubt. Satan comes and he whispers in your ear: "God doesnít care. God doesnít love you. Godís promises are lies."

There is only one answer to this problem. Only one answer and that is Jesus Christ living in us. Jesus Christ experienced all of these problems, all of these personal difficulties and economic difficulties. Jesus suffered loneliness. He suffered hostility. He suffered betrayal. He suffered poverty and grief. He suffered all these difficulties but He had perfect faith and trust in the Father.

In His agony on the cross He even experienced being forsaken by the Father. The gap was stretched so far, the gap between Godís word and the events that were happening to Jesus stretched so unimaginably wide, that in His humanity, even Jesus cried out, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" But still He trusted in the Father. His faith held firmóHe didnít doubt. Jesus Christ suffered far more in the events of life that you and I can ever suffer, but His absolute faith in His Father never wavered. He can enable us, because if we are Christians, He lives in us and His faith is available to us. In Him we can triumph and our faith hold firm. 

All of us will be tested. Maybe you havenít gone through many trials, but if you are a believer you will, because thatís how God builds faith in our lives. Peter tells us "you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" [1 Pet 1:6-7], and then

 "Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christís sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy." [1 Pet 4:12-13]

It is only through trials like this that our faith can be built up. Habakkukís third chapter is full of declarations of his firm faith. He joyfully proclaims:

Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls; [3:17-19]

In other words Godís Works all seem to be against him.

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deerís feet,
And He will make me walk on my high hills.

He will nevertheless put his confidence in Godís promises. 

When you are faced with problems, recognize Satanís lies for what they are. Recognize that he wants to whisper in your ear, "God doesnít care for you. Godís Words are not going to come true. They are are not for you. They are for other people, not for you." Recognize that what Satan wants to do is to cast doubt on Godís Word.

See Jesus hanging there on the cross, a submissive Lamb, submitting to everything, and yet trusting God, trusting the Father perfectly, hanging there on the cross, suffering far more than youíve ever done, or you could ever do. He just simply trusted the Father. He just simply rested in the Father. Thatís what we have to do. Rest in Godís Words. Rest in His promises.

Why do we find it sometimes so hard to rest in God, to trust in Him. We find it so hard to believe that He truly loves us, when He says He does. There is a hymn that expresses the idea perfectly: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Do you believe that He loves you? If you are a Christian, He loves you, because the Bible tells you so.

But sometimes, we look at our heart; we look at our failure and we say, "Lord Iíve failed you so many times," and we donít feel that love. We doubt that God loves us. We think, "how can He love somebody like me, when I turn against Him, and I fail and I sin? How can He love me?" And we doubt His Word. Donít doubt Him. 

He tells us to rest in His salvation, but we canít believe that everything is done for us. We like to think, "Iíve got to do some more. Iíve got to do something to please God." God says, "Everything is done. Itís all complete. Just rest in what Iíve done for you." But we canít do that, because we doubt His Words. Letís put aside our doubts. Letís take hold of Godís promises. Letís grasp His Word, take hold of it and not let it go. What have we to fear if God loves us so much that He gave His own Son to die for us? [Rom 8:32] May each of us, 

"be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height; to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph 3:18-19)

This is Part 1 of a series by Dr. Andrew Fountain, Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College, on God's Works and His Words. Part 1 has concentrated on the negative aspects of God's works. Part 2 will look at the positive ways in which God may speak through His words.

 Go to Part 2