Question: "What is divine providence?"
Answer: Divine Providence is the means by and through which God governs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. This includes the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human birth and destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of his people (Psalm 4:8). This doctrine stands in direct opposition to the idea that the universe is governed by chance or fate.
The purpose, or goal, of divine providence is to accomplish the will of God. To ensure that His purposes are fulfilled, God governs the affairs of men and works through the natural order of things. The laws of nature are nothing more than a depiction of God at work in the universe. The laws of nature have no inherent power, nor do they work independently; they are the rules and principles that God set in place to govern how things work.
The same goes for human choice. In a very real sense, we are not free to choose or act apart from God’s will. Everything we do and everything we choose is in full accordance to God’s will—even our sinful choices (Genesis 50:20). The bottom line is that God controls our choices and actions (Genesis 45:5; Deuteronomy 8:18; Proverbs 21:1), yet He does so in such a way that does not violate our responsibility as free moral agents, nor does it negate the reality of our choice.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states the doctrine of divine providence in a way that is succinct, yet which captures all the elements of this doctrine: “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (WCF, 3.1). The primary means by which God accomplishes His will is through secondary causes (e.g., laws of nature and human choice). In other words, God works indirectly through these secondary causes to accomplish His will. Again turning to the WCF—“Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (WCF, 5.2).
God also sometimes works directly to accomplish His will. These are what we would call miracles (i.e., the supernatural as opposed to the natural). A miracle is God’s circumventing, for a short period of time, the natural order of things to accomplish His will and purposes. Two examples from the book of Acts should serve to highlight God’s directly and indirectly working to accomplish His will. In Acts 9 we see the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. In a blinding flash of light and in a voice that only Saul/Paul heard, God changed his life forever. It was God’s will to use Paul to further accomplish His will, and God used direct means to convert Paul. Talk to anyone you know who converted to Christianity, and you will more than likely never hear a story quite like this. Most of us come to Christ through hearing a sermon preached or reading a book or the persistent witness of a friend or family member. In addition to that, there are usually life circumstances that prepare the way—loss of a job, loss of a family member, failed marriage, chemical addiction. Paul’s conversion was direct and supernatural.
In Acts 16:6-10, we see God accomplishing His will indirectly. This takes place during Paul’s second missionary journey. God wanted Paul and company to go to Troas, but when Paul left Antioch of Pisidia, he wanted to go east into Asia. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia. Then they wanted to go west into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Christ prevented them, so they ended up going to Troas. Now this was written in retrospect, but at the time there were probably some logical explanations as to why they couldn’t go into those two regions. However, after the fact, they realized that it was God directing them where He wanted them to go—that’s providence. My favorite Bible verse that speaks to this is Proverbs 16:9—“The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
On the other hand, there are those who will say that the concept of God’s directly or indirectly orchestrating all things destroys any possibility of free will. If God is in complete control, how can we be truly free in the decisions we make? In other words, for free will to be meaningful, there must be some things which are outside of God’s sovereign control—e.g., the contingency of human choice. Let us assume for the sake of argument that this is true. What then? If God is not in complete control of all contingencies, then how could He guarantee our salvation? Paul says in Philippians 1:6 that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If God is not in control of all things, then this promise (and other biblical promises) is invalid. We can’t have complete security that the good work of salvation that was begun in us will be brought to completion.
Furthermore, if God is not in control of all things, then He isn’t sovereign, and if He isn’t sovereign, then He isn’t God. So, the price of maintaining contingencies outside of God’s control results in a God who is no God at all. And if our “free” will can supercede divine providence, then who is ultimately God? We are. That is, obviously, unacceptable to anyone with a Christian and biblical worldview. Divine providence does not destroy our freedom. Rather, divine providence is what enables us to properly use that freedom.