Providence – not Superstition – for 2019

Providence

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.

 

It is that time of the year – the old one concluding, and a new one beginning – when superstitions and pseudo-sciences are at their peak of influence and following.  Polka dots and round fruits to represent wealth.  Preference for pasta to symbolize long life.  Feng Shui to manipulate good energies.  Zodiac and Chinese calendar-cycle to divine the secret charm of the coming year.  The options are numerous.  Each is an exercise in false hope.

A well-instructed Christian will not give credence to any of these superstitions.  It is not because the Christian’s alternative is fatalism.  A what-will-be-will-be attitude is not Christian at all.  Certainly, it is not according to the Word of God.  A Christian is as much concerned as anyone else for the new year’s prospect.  He has his expectations.  He hopes.  But he holds steadfastly to something more certain than superstitions.  It is called providence of God.

Concept of Providence

It is not a word that is commonly used in the English Bible.  In the KJV, it only occurs once (Acts 24:2), and there it only means the foresight of Felix’s leadership.  The one time it occurs in the NIV is closer to our sense, in Job 10:12, You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit. But while sparse in occurrence, the idea pervades biblical thought.  In systematic theology, providence is put under the category of the works of God – after His predestination and creation.  Where predestination is the plan of God from eternity past (also called decrees), providence is the execution of the plan in time and history.  In the simple assertion of Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck, “according to Scripture and the church’s confession, providence is that act of God by which from moment to moment he preserves and governs all things.” [ Hermann Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2: p. 596 ]

The pervasive “all things” in the coverage of providence is intended to spare nothing from God’s governing control.  All created things are in the two modes of either remaining in the same state, or changing into another state – in philosophical language, being or becoming.  Belief in providence holds that all states of being remain as they are by the preservation and provision of God.  As Nehemiah exalts God: You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all (Neh 9:6).  Even the changes, the becoming, are directed by the purpose of God.  In contrast with the pagan deities, the prophet asserts, The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand…”  For the LORD of hosts has purposed, And who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, And who will turn it back? (Isa 14:24, 27).

Theologian GC Berkouwer summarizes, “All things, having once proceeded from God’s creative hand, are still utterly dependent upon his omnipresent power… all things are indebted for their existence to the preserving act of God; let God cease to act and the universe will cease to exist.  This concept of sustenance opposes every claimant to absoluteness in this world – gods and idols, and any who would autonomously and sovereignly pretend to a self-sufficient existence.” [ G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God: p. 50 ]

The assertion of Scriptures is as emphatic when it pertains to God’s providence in the affairs of mankind – human actions and intentions.  This happens without any infringement of man’s moral accountability and responsibility.  When men do the evil, the culpability is theirs; but even the evil does not happen outside God’s providential purpose.  Sometimes, God restrains the evil (Gen 20:6); and at other times, He lets loose man’s own evil devices, So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices (Psa 81:12).  In this, humans remain ‘free agents’ in their actions.  Their will is not coerced contrary to their nature.  Providence must not be stretched to the denial of human freedom and moral responsibility.  In the language of the Confession, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” [ 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: IX. 1 ].

Use of Providence

How are we to use the concept of God’s providence in facing the prospect of 2019?

It is a corrective to the heavy emphasis on the miraculous and spectacular.  A dominant faction in Christian circles has inculcated the expectation that God’s acts of power are to be seen in the miraculous and supernatural.  Its effect is the impoverishment of faith – reducing it to a magical formula that is more pagan than Christian.  Many are blind to the wonder of providence that is often hidden in ordinary motions – human or natural.  The 19th century English preacher, CH Spurgeon, puts it eloquently:

Everything is in the Divine purpose, and has been ordered by Divine wisdom. All the events of your life – the greater, certainly; and the smaller, with equal certainty.  It is impossible to draw a line in Providence and say this is arranged by Providence and that is not. God’s Providence takes everything in its sweep- all that happens. Divine Providence determines not only the movement of a star, but the blowing of a grain of dust along the public road. God’s Providence knows nothing of things so little as to be beneath its notice, nothing of things so great as to be beyond its control. Nothing is too little or too great for God to rule and overrule. [ Spurgeon’s Sermons “The Hairs of Your Head Numbered” #2005. Mt.10:30 ]

It is an inspiration to the real challenge of faith – to trust in God.  In his book, Trusting God, author Jerry Bridges makes an impressive comparison between obeying God’s commands and trusting God in our circumstances.

Why is it easier to obey God than to trust Him?  Because obeying God makes sense to us… But the circumstances we often find ourselves in defy explanation.  When unexpected situations arise that appear unjust, irrational, or even dreadful, we feel confused and frustrated.  And before long we begin to doubt God’s concern for us and His control of our lives. [ Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: ch 1; from the back cover ]

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.  As Stanley Grenz confidently assures,

Despite appearances to the contrary, the world historical process is going somewhere.  God is directing human affairs to the final revelation of his sovereignty and reordering of the universe in the new heaven and the new earth.  In his time, God will act decisively.  And even now he invites us to orient our lives around his ongoing program.  By means of allegiance to God revealed in Christ we can exchange the disorder of life for a new order marked by community or fellowship with God, others, and all creation. [ Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God: 123 ]

Believing in God’s providence, we can own the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Q28:  What does it profit us to know that God created and by His providence upholds all things?  

A28:  That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

What a comfort the providence of God truly is!  May it be the foundation of your hope in 2019.  A God-blessed New Year to all!

Social Justice – Common Grace or Saving Grace?

Rom 3 26

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

 

A heated debate is currently raging among evangelical brethren in America.  The subject is the place of social justice as a theme of gospel proclamation, and as a mandate of church mission.

Concerned evangelical leaders have publicized their position in “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.”  Its key negation states, “We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.  Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.”[1]

Predictably, those on the opposite side have criticized this position.  One critic says of this statement, “At worst, it represents a toxic agenda to discredit and undermine godly men and women crying out for biblical social justice, national and ecclesiastical repentance, and meaningful reconciliation.”[2]

Each side of the debate has legitimate concerns, seeking fair assessment and response by the other.  Both sides must resist polarizing their position, while demonizing the other.  It is my humble submission that the subject can be addressed by appeal to an old pair of perspectives of grace – as common grace and as saving grace.

 

God’s gracious dealing with mankind can be categorized as common grace or saving grace.

While God’s grace is a clear concept of the Bible, differentiating it as ‘common’ grace and ‘special/saving’ grace is a theological construct.  It is not biblical vocabulary as such.  But the legitimacy of such categorization arises from the need to see God’s favor even on unbelievers who do not have the blessing of salvation.  Thus, such favors are described as common grace, because even if they are not saving, they are still undeserved by sinful man.  Whereas, salvation blessings on believers, and the Church, are called saving grace.

Theology traditionally includes under common grace such blessings as morality, civilization, human vocation, and prosperity.  In his address to the farmers of Lystra, Paul affirms that “(God) did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  It is impressive that even amidst their pagan idolatry, Paul is not restrained from recognizing the hand of God in the blessing of their vocation.  Common grace also includes good works of unbelievers.  Cornelius, even as an unbeliever, was commended for his ‘prayers and alms as… memorial to God’ (Acts 10:4), and yet he still needed to know the way of salvation.

The concept of common grace acknowledges that there is blessedness and goodness in the human community that does not constitute their salvation; but they are still God’s favors that remain undeserved by man – and hence, grace.  John Calvin acknowledges that God honors even the morality of unbelievers:

Hence this distinction between honorable and base actions God has not only engraved on the minds of each, but also often confirms in the administration of his providence. For we see how he visits those who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings. Not that that external image of virtue in the least degree merits his favor, but he is pleased thus to show how much he delights in true righteousness, since he does not leave even the outward semblance of it to go unrewarded. Hence it follows, as we lately observed, that those virtues, or rather images of virtues, of whatever kind, are divine gifts, since there is nothing in any degree praiseworthy which proceeds not from him.[3]

The significance of this distinction can have a telling effect on the way we weigh God’s various dealings with people.  Michael Horton warns against this confusion,

When we confuse these two categories, it is easy to see success in business as a sign of divine favor and floods in a particular region as the sign of divine reprobation… The ungodly mistake God’s common grace for saving grace by presuming that because things are not so bad right now, they are not under God’s displeasure, while believers wonder, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (Psalm 73).  Unless we understand the difference between common grace and saving grace, unbelievers will be led to presumption and believers will be led to doubt.[4]

This is where we need to rightly place social justice and the gospel in the category of grace each belongs.

 

Social Justice is in the realm of Common Grace

The equality of all mankind is a principle based on God’s creation.  All are equal, regardless of ethnicity and social class, because we are all human beings by virtue of God’s creation.  “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).  Upon the equality of all stands the imperative of justice that must treat all equally.  There should be no innate advantage of one race/class over another.  Where racial advantage is obtained, it is unjust because it vitiates the equal creaturehood of every man and woman.

This equality is to characterize society as human society – not Christian society.  Equal treatment is to be extended to all as human beings, not as a believer or unbeliever.  In other words, one does not need to be a gospel believer to receive equal treatment as a human being.  It is his as one created in the image of God – as much as every other man and woman.

It is for this purpose that human government was put in place to have oversight of justice in human society.  “The king establishes the land by justice” (Pro 29:4).  Such a ruler need not be a believer in order to rule with justice.  Nero was the cruel emperor of the Roman Empire when Paul wrote of such rulers, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).  Peter makes it imperative for Christians, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It proves a point material to this debate – that social justice can be obtained, not by necessity of the gospel, but the right application of the truth of creation of all mankind.  Even unbelievers can be instrumental to the promotion of justice and the reformation of society so that equality of all is the order that prevails.  It does not take a Christian president to reform society to become more just, and its people socially moral.  The Christian mission does not depend upon human government to pursue its goal.  Social justice is common grace and not of the essence of the gospel.

 

Church Gospel Mission is in the cause of Saving Grace

 Because individual Christians live in the two realms of common grace and saving grace, they have the responsibility of actively supporting causes and policies that promote social justice.  But the kingdom that Christ brought about by His death and resurrection is about saving grace – salvation of sinners by the grace of God through gospel faith.  This is the kingdom in which Jesus began to sit upon His throne from the time of His resurrection (Acts 2:30-33).  This kingly reign is yet of a priestly nature for the purpose of mediation and intercession (Heb 8:1ff).  This is not to be mistaken for any human government which has the mandate of justice in society.

The justice that concerned most the saving work of Christ is the justice of God that demands the vindication of His broken law.  That vindication demands the punishment of sinners.  This creates that great mystery expressed of old, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2).  What the redemptive work of Christ has done is to solve that mystery through His death.  It was a substitutionary death that satisfies the justice of God.  The result is that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

We commend the usefulness of social action; but the Church has weightier matters in its hand.  Kenneth Myers warns,

Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ.  It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as a spiritual body… If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.[5]

The cry for justice by the oppressed is real.  Christians must be decisive voices to arouse the collective conscience of society.  But the Church is to be another voice, or better, Another’s voice – that of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.  Through living the truth of the gospel, the Church is to be a demonstration of that new humanity that learned to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – a precursor of the time when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isa 2:4).  It envisions the kind of earth it will someday become when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev 11:15).

But while that is not yet, the Church must be on the mission of saving grace.

 

[1] “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” VIII. The Church; https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[2] “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement’” RyanBurtonKing.blogspot.com

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 14. 2

[4] Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody): 189

[5] Kenneth Myers, “Proclamation Instead of Protest” from Michael Horton (ed.), Power Religion: 46f