Westminster Larger Catechism (Q 18)

Dear Church Family,

Continuing in our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), this past Sunday, we covered question 18. Here is a brief overview.

WLC 18  What are the works of providence?
God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.

Having established that God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence (WLC 14), last week we concluded our look at God’s work of creation: His creation of all things (WLC 15), His creation of angels (WLC 16), and His creation of mankind (WLC 17). The next set of questions describe God’s work of providence according to the same pattern: God’s general providence over all things (WLC 18), His providence towards angels (WLC 19), and His providence toward man (WLC 20 and following).

WLC 18 seems relatively short and simple; however, it engendered a great amount of discussion and study of the Scriptures in our Sunday school class. This is not unusual but is often the case when one begins to think through the importance and implications of understanding the fact that God “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Dissenting Voices to God’s Providence

But let’s back up a little bit and recognize that there are religious systems in our day that deny God’s providence. For instance, naturalists and those who embrace scientism, along with some other religions such as Hinduism, believe that the world is a closed system. According to these systems there is no outside force or God who rules over creation or is able to affect any change in the world.

Then there are deists who believe that God created the world, but that He is no longer involved; He has left the world to work out its own destiny. Near the end of the 20th century, some Christians began to embrace a philosophy known as open theism, the central tenet being that God is not sovereign over history, but actually learns the outcomes of history as they unfold.

Unfortunately, there are many professing Christians who say that they believe in the sovereignty and providence of God, yet become practical deists in certain areas. The two main areas in which many Christians deny God’s sovereignty and providence and become practical deists are the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of evil. With regard to the doctrine of salvation, many professing Christians deny God’s sovereignty and providence by seeking to elevate the free will and autonomy of man. We discussed the Biblical doctrine of election and predestination when we considered WLC 13 (https://hillcountrypca.org/westminster-larger-catechism-q-11-13/).

The Problem of Evil

With regard to the doctrine of evil, many professing Christians deny God’s sovereignty and providence over sin, disease, and calamity out of a desire to protect God’s lovingkindness and holiness. It can be difficult to understand how God providentially ordains and orders even the sinful actions of men, disease, and natural disasters for His glory and the good of His people. After all, we are not God. However, the Scriptures clearly teach that God, in His holiness, wisdom, and power, preserves and governs all His creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to His own glory (WLC 18). And, at the same time, God is not the author of sin or approver of sin (James 1:13-17; 1 John 1:5; 2:16; Psalm 50:21).

Let’s consider some examples. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, he explains how it was according to the plan and providence of God that he came to Egypt: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7). This is an astounding statement when you consider that the means that God used to send Joseph to Egypt were the sinful actions of his brothers who kidnapped him, almost killed him, and then sold him into slavery. Likewise, after their father Jacob dies, Joseph seeks to comfort his brothers with the same appeal to God’s providence: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).

The New Testament bears a similar testimony to God’s providence over sin and the evil actions of men. In his sermon the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter bears testimony to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 2:22-36). In the midst of this testimony, he declares that Jesus was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God and nailed to the cross by the hands of godless men who put Him to death (Acts 2:23). It was God’s predetermined plan that godless and sinful men would nail Jesus to the cross.

Later in the book of Acts, Peter and John bear witness to Jesus Christ before the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1ff). After they are released from the custody of this religious council, the Christian believers in Jerusalem offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord (Acts 4:24-30). In the midst of that prayer, they make this declaration: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). Again, notice the assertion here that all those who were in committed opposition to Jesus and His followers (Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel) did what God’s hand and purpose predestined to occur.

We find another testimony to God’s sovereignty and providence over sin, disease, or calamity, in the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul explains how he received some kind of physical affliction in order to keep him humble, to keep him from exalting himself. He says, “there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul’s implication here is that though his physical affliction was a messenger of Satan, it was given to him by God. It would seem that Satan was the unwitting tool in God’s plan of sanctification for Paul.

Conclusion & Application

As we said from the outset, the fact that God providentially ordains and orders sin, disease, and calamity while not being the author or approve of sin is something that is difficult for our finite minds to grasp. Yet, we find both of these truths taught side by side in the Bible. And notice that when speaking of God’s providence over evil, God’s Word doesn’t use words like “allowed” or “permitted,” but that it was according to His “predetermined plan.”

So, what are some of the applicable “take-aways” from understanding the full extent of God’s providence? Well, for one thing, it reminds us that God is God and we are not! Indeed, it reminds us that He is the only true and powerful God who created all things out of nothing and rules over all things by the word of His power.

It is also a great comfort for those who have repented and trusted in Christ, the adopted children of God. Because God powerfully preserves and governs all His creatures and all their actions, we can rest in the fact that our loving and powerful God “causes all things [including sin, disease, and calamity] to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). He is not passive; He actively ‘causes’ all things.

And so, we are assured and convinced “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch