The terms church militant, triumphant, and latent are used to describe a threefold distinction in the church of Christ. The one church of Christ can be described as she exists throughout history in three different states. A threefold distinction in the church was often used by the medieval church theologians. However, they spoke of the church militant, triumphant, and dormant. According to Rome, the church dormant was that aspect of the church that supposedly suffered in purgatory between their death and final glorification. With the Reformation’s rejection of works righteousness and its attendant doctrine of purgatory, the reformers spoke of the church militant and triumphant. A proper understanding of the definition of the church also requires that we speak of the church latent.
The description of the church as militant, triumphant, and latent follows from the understanding of the church as the complete number of the elect that make up Christ’s universal body. Christ is the head. The church is his body. That church is composed of the total number of the elect that God appointed to salvation in eternity. Rome made the church the pope and his hierarchy. The church is wherever the pope is. The church, then, is basically synonymous with the Roman Catholic institution. Arminianism, with its doctrine of man’s free will, defines the church as those who accept the offered salvation and persevere to the end. Man’s will defines the church.
The Reformed faith, following men like John Hus and John Wycliffe, brought the definition of the church back to scripture. The church is the company of the predestinated. Election is the heart of the church. The church cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of election, and election cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of the church. Election appoints individuals out of the human race to salvation as the church. By means of election God determined the body of Christ, the church, and gave to each individual his place in that universal body. The gathering of the church is the gathering of the elect. Election controls the gathering of the church. Election determines when and where those elect are gathered and brings to pass all that is necessary for their gathering into communion with Christ by faith. No church or denomination or religious organization at any point or time in history exhausts the church. The church will only be seen in her fullness in the new heavens and earth when God reveals the innumerable multitude gathered throughout history from all nations.
The understanding of the church as the company of the predestinated is found in the Reformed creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21 says about the church, “That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself…a church chosen to everlasting life.” The Belgic Confession in Article 27 refers to the church in the perilous times of Ahab, that “the Lord reserved unto Him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal,” a remnant that the apostle Paul in Romans 11:5 calls “a remnant according to the election of grace.”
The Reformed creeds, in their understanding of the church as a “chosen church” and an elect remnant, simply base themselves on scripture. Referring to the church of God in the Old Testament, Moses teaches Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6 that “the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself.” In the great New Testament book of the Bible on the church, the apostle Paul teaches the church in Ephesians 1:4–5 that she has been “chosen…before the foundation of the world” and “predestinated…according to the good pleasure of his will.” The church is one great, innumerable multitude chosen to salvation and gathered into fellowship with Christ throughout history.
When we speak of the church militant, we are speaking of that aspect of the church that is alive on the earth at any one time in history, is joined to Christ by faith, and is fighting the good fight of faith in the world against sin, Satan, and the whole world. The church is a warring church. She has been called out of the world to which she belongs by nature. She has been called into communion with Christ by faith. Enmity with the world is the result. To be the friend of God is to be the enemy of the world, sin, and Satan. The love of God demands that she hate the world. So the character of her life in the world of sin and darkness is one of constant warfare. The Heidelberg Catechism describes the life of the church militant in its explanation of the church’s petition, “deliver us from evil,” in Lord’s Day 52: “since our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh cease not to assault us, do Thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes…”
The church triumphant means that aspect of the church that throughout history has finished their course of warfare on the earth and is glorified in heaven—some in soul, a few in body and soul, such as Elijah and Moses. The church triumphant is living and reigning with Jesus Christ in conscious glory in heaven.
The truth of the church triumphant is closely connected with the doctrine of the intermediate state. The intermediate state is the state of the saints after physical death and before the final resurrection. The false doctrine of soul sleep denied that there was such a thing as the church triumphant. According to that false doctrine, when the saints die their souls enter a state of unconscious existence until the final resurrection. Rome denied that the church triumphant included most believers. Most believers entered purgatory at their death to suffer punishment and to pay for their sins. The Reformed faith teaches that the saints at their death are immediately taken up to be with Christ in glory. The body of the saint goes into the grave, and the soul of the saint is resurrected to heavenly glory. Christ assured the thief on the cross that he would be with Christ in Paradise that day. That word of Christ also refutes the Roman Catholic fiction of purgatory. If there was a man that needed purgatory, surely it was the thief on the cross, but he went immediately to be with Christ.
The book of Revelation pictures the intermediate state of believers in many places in the book, but especially in Revelation 20:4–5: “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God…and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” John sees the souls of those who had been beheaded for Christ’s sake. The church of Christ in her warfare in the earth always suffers some form of martyrdom for Christ’s sake. We are killed all the day long in many different ways. At the end of earthly life the believer is taken up to live and reign with Christ. The church triumphs over sin, death, the world, and the devil and his hosts in this life. She enjoys conscious glory and perfection in soul with Christ in heaven. This state lasts until the coming of Christ, when the whole elect church, gathered and glorified body and soul by the wonder of the resurrection, becomes the church triumphant.
Controversial is whether or not there is such a thing as a church latent. The church latent is that aspect of the elect body of Christ that is not yet born, or that is not yet gathered into communion with Christ by faith. Not denying the truth of election, some argue that the church can only refer to those that are joined in communion with Christ by faith, whether on the earth or in glory. Others deny that there is a church latent because they deny the truth of election.
Although the words church latent are not used in scripture, the concept of the church latent is found in scripture. For instance, God spoke to the apostle Paul during his mission labors in Corinth in Acts 18:9–10: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.” The people in that city were the Lord’s people. They were the Lord’s people by virtue of divine election. That divine election constituted them as members of God’s church from eternity. They had eternal and real communion with Christ by election, though they were not yet members of Christ in time by faith. The Lord’s election of them demanded that they be gathered into communion with Christ by faith, that is, that the eternal reality of their communion with Christ be made temporal reality in their union with Christ by faith. This is the church latent in every age.
There is one elect church in every age. The church latent becomes the church militant. The church militant becomes the church triumphant until finally all God’s church has been gathered and glorified, and together that church, as an innumerable throng, gives glory to God and to the Lamb in the new heaven and new earth, world without end.
Originally published June 2020, Vol 79 No 6
The Character of the Belgic Confession
Rev. Nathan Langerak
The Belgic Confession is the earliest of the Reformed creeds known collectively as the Three Forms of Unity. The Three Forms of Unity are the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. The name of the creed, Belgic Confession, derives from the name of territory, Belgium, where the creed was written. Belgium at that time referred to whole area that today is made up of three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
The Belgic Confession was forged in the fires of the persecution of the Reformed churches in Belgium by the fanatically Roman Catholic kings of Spain. The Spanish king Charles V was the ruler of that area at the beginning of the Reformation. The territory was an important source of revenue for the perennially cash-strapped ruler, so Charles initially governed with a rather light hand. In 1521 Charles ordered Protestantism eradicated in his realm. The persecution reached its peak under Charles’ son, Philip II, who became king in 1556. At first Philip placed Princess Margaret in charge of Belgium, but sensing weakness in her resolve to prosecute his war against the truth, he replaced her with the bloody Duke of Alva in 1567. During his reign of terror the persecution was fiercest. The precise number of those martyred is unknown to any but God.
During this terrifying persecution a Reformed pastor, Guy de Bres (pronounced de-Bray), wrote the Belgic Confession. He was born in 1522 in the French-speaking part of Belgium. He was raised Roman Catholic, but some time before 1547 he became a Protestant. In 1548 he went to study in England for several years, but returned to Belgium in 1552 to become a pastor. As the persecution intensified he was forced to flee from his congregation and to preach wherever he could. He began writing the Belgic Confession in 1559 and finished in 1561. In 1567 he was captured by the authorities who had hounded him for so long. After a brief imprisonment he was executed by public hanging. He was 45 years old and left behind a wife and five children. That persecution, and particularly the death of its author, must be remembered when studying the character of the Belgic Confession.
The Belgic Confession was a defense of the Reformed faith against the persecutors. In his dedicatory epistle Guy de Bres addressed King Philip and petitioned for relief from the persecution. The Roman Catholic authorities lumped all the Protestants together as detestable Anabaptists and thus a threat to the social order. The confession served to distinguish the Reformed faith from these subversive and revolutionary Anabaptists and to show the king that the Reformed were obedient and worthy citizens.
The Belgic Confession was also written for the persecuted saints. It was a witness that the truth for which they gave their lives was the very word of God and so a testimony that their cause is the cause of the Son of God. The beginning of every article indicates this: “We believe with the heart and confess with the mouth,” or, “we believe,” or, “we believe according to the Word of God,” or, “we believe and confess.”
Because they believed these things on the basis of the word of God, they were informing the king that they would not compromise, no matter the cost. In the stirring words of preface to the Belgic Confession,
The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction is not carnal… But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that he shall forsake us before God and his Father if we deny him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.
Their confession was a costly confession, written and sealed with their blood.
What should be the evaluation of professing Reformed young people who easily forsake that confession or will not confess it when that confession means the loss of friends, family, or popularity? Their confession is empty words, and they trample of the blood of their forebearers who gave their lives for the truth’s sake. In studying the truth of the Belgic Confession the Reformed young person must be reminded that whosoever confesses Christ must confess him before men at all costs in the fear of God, in love for Christ, and in dread of Christ’s words that whosoever denies him before men, him will Christ deny before God and the holy angels.
Because it was the confession of the persecuted, there is a strong element of comfort in the Belgic Confession. Especially important were the doctrines in Articles 21–23 of the sufficiency of Christ’s one, only sacrifice and the peace that comes from justification by faith alone for every child of God. There are also the comforting confessions of God’s sovereignty over the evil endured by the church at the hands of her enemies “when devils and wicked men act unjustly” in Article 13 on providence and of the preservation of the church “against the rage of the whole world” in Article 27 on the church. In light of the historic circumstances the believer is moved to tears by the words of Article 37 on the final judgment.
The consideration of this judgment is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and the elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne. Their innocence shall be known to all, and they shall see the terrible vengeance which God shall execute on the wicked, who most cruelly persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world; and who shall be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences, and, being immortal, shall be tormented in that everlasting fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.
But on the contrary, the faithful and elect shall be crowned with glory and honor; and the Son of God will confess their names before God His Father and His elect angels; all tears shall be wiped from their eyes; and their cause, which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious, will then be known to be the cause of the Son of God.
In light of the persecution it is startling that the Belgic Confession is also polemical, and especially against Rome. Fearlessly the Reformed church condemned Rome’s false doctrines and rebuked “her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry” (Article 29). If a church or individual will not condemn false doctrine in the relatively safe environment of today, how will they do that when the condemnation of error means death at the hands of those that teach false doctrine? They will not, but will betray the truth to save their lives and so will lose their souls. In the Belgic Confession the Reformed faith shows its fighting character. It also shames the spirit of this age that studiously keeps back its sword from blood in all theological controversy. This compromising spirit views controversy over the truth as a threat. When the truth is threatened by false teachers this same spirit loudly proclaims that there is no controversy at all, and its engagement with the false teacher never progresses beyond a friendly discussion or the mildest rebuke. The Belgic Confession confronts the believer with his obligation to contend earnestly for the faith in the face of the threat of the loss of name, place, and life in this world.
The Belgic Confession is doctrinal. It is not concerned with cultural issues or social justice or injustices in the world, but with doctrine. The doctrine of the Belgic Confession is the doctrine of the word of God and thus the truth that a believer must know for his comfort and salvation. Reformed believers lost their lives for the sake of that doctrine. The Belgic Confession teaches the Reformed young people to love that doctrine and to value that doctrine more highly than their own lives.
The Belgic Confession treats the doctrine according to the ancient division of doctrine known as the six loci of Reformed doctrine. The Latin word loci means topics. There are six main topics of Reformed doctrine: theology, the study of God; anthropology, the study of man; Christology, the study of Christ; soteriology, the study of salvation; ecclesiology, the study of the church; and eschatology, the study of the end times. The Belgic Confession organizes the doctrine of the Reformed faith under these six topics. Beginning the creed there is also a section on the doctrine of scripture, the source of all right doctrine and true knowledge of God.
The form of the Belgic Confession teaches that the truth of scripture must be systematized. That means that the truth that scripture reveals must be organized in a logical fashion. The truth of God can be systematized because it is logical and does not contain any contradictions. This idea about the truth of scripture is attacked. Today the thinking is that the truth is paradoxical. What is meant by paradoxical is not an apparent contradiction which can and must be resolved, but that the truth is entirely contradictory. So it is taught as profound theology that God loves all men and desires to save all men, and there is election and reprobation; or that God is three Persons and one Person. These are irresolvable contradictions. Such contradictions make the truth of God unknowable. If in the field of mathematics 2+2=4 and 2+2=6, then the truth of what 2+2 equals is unknowable. When this is done in theology God is rendered unknowable. In churches where these contradictions are taught, the knowledge of God is taken away, to the destruction of faith and godliness. The Belgic Confession teaches in its very structure that the truth is one harmonious whole without contradictions. The truth can and must be arranged logically. By means of this logical structure God is known more and more by the believer.
Its doctrinal content and order is the beauty and the glory of the Belgic Confession as a creed. It teaches the knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3). There is no grander subject that the believing young person can study than the theology of the Belgic Confession, and with it the other of the Three Forms of Unity. Their doctrine is the truth of God as revealed in the sacred scripture.
Rev. Nathan Langerak is the pastor of Crete Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Il.
Originally published March 2020, Vol 79 No 3
The Flood is history. The same kind of carnal unbelief that said in Noah’s day, “there will be no Flood,” says today, “there was no Flood.” Both are rooted in the love of the world and hatred of the God of Jesus Christ, truth, and judgment. The church must proclaim the history of the Flood.
In the 600th year of Noah’s life in the 2nd month on the 17th day of the month, God came in the Flood. For 40 days and 40 nights rain fell. The sluice gates of heaven let down a wall of water from above and the fountains of the deep unleashed a wall of water from beneath. This was accompanied by a great tearing, rending, and shaking of the earth. Those waters went up until they covered the mountains of that world to a depth of 15 cubits. The waters prevailed for 150 days. The Flood lasted one year and ten days.
The Flood was the manifestation of the power of God. The Bible says the waters “prevailed,” and the waters “prevailed exceedingly” (Gen. 7:18, 19, and 24).
The Flood was the power of God to judge and destroy a world smug in its sins. They were deaf to Noah’s preaching and warnings and mocked at his word about righteousness and safety in the ark. Such is God’s word always to the unbelieving and the impenitent. They will be destroyed.
The Flood was the power of God’s grace to save believing Noah and his family and the animals that were with him. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). In grace, God gave an unconditional promise to save Noah. In grace, he made a covenant with Noah. The grace of God lifted Noah up and separated him from the destruction of the world happening beneath the waves.
Noah was saved by faith alone. By faith alone, Noah was righteous before God. Righteousness is God’s judgment that a man is perfect and worthy of eternal life. God saved Noah because God forgave his sins and declared him righteous. This is the stated ground for Jehovah’s call of Noah into the Ark, “for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1).
The Flood is a type of the salvation of God’s elect church in Christ. As God saved righteous Noah, so God saves the righteous man today. The righteous man is the man whose conscience is cleansed from guilt by faith in the resurrection of Christ.
Christ’s resurrection is the promise from God that the Flood is passed for the believer because Christ underwent the judgment of the Flood at the cross. Scripture describes the reality of the cross for Jesus Christ: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me” (Ps. 42:7). Jesus went down into the flood of God’s wrath at the cross and with him went the whole cosmos, God’s elect church at the heart of the cosmos, and all the sin and guilt of all God’s people. He emerged from that flood the third day when he came out of the grave. He arose because he made satisfaction for sin.
Since he emerged, the believer cannot be submerged anymore in the judgments of God. The resurrection is the confirmation that we are perfectly righteous in Christ and worthy of eternal life. When the believer experiences a flood of troubles in this life, the resurrection of Christ is the promise that those sufferings are for salvation and not for destruction. When God comes in judgment at death, then the believer will not perish, but really begin to live through the dying off of sin. When God shakes the world once more at the appearance of Christ, he will deliver the believer at last into the new heavens and earth.
In the death and resurrection of Christ, believers have been buried with him, raised to new life. As really as those Flood waters came in and lifted up Noah and his family and separated them from the destruction of the world, so does the blood of Christ separate the church from the world. The blood of Christ separates in the very depths of the being of the child of God. It destroys all flesh. It destroys flesh, too, in the sense of the old man of sin. The old sinful man is killed and the sanctified and renewed man emerges. By the blood of Christ, believers are washed from sin’s guilt and accounted righteous before God in Christ. By the blood of Christ, they are washed from the pollution and dominion of sin and consecrated to God. God will preserve them until he sets them down on their Ararat in the newborn world of the new creation.
God saved Noah and his family in the ark. The word ark means a box or chest. We can conceive of very large wooden pole barn or better, of a huge coffin into which Noah entered by faith, and by the wonder of God’s grace emerged from the flood.
The ark was an instrument that God used to save Noah. The ark did not save and preserve Noah because it floated or because it was so well constructed. The Flood would have destroyed the largest ships man has ever built. The Scriptures say that “the Lord shut him in” (Gen. 7:16). That phrase means that God took the ark into his bosom, enfolded it with his arms, stood under it, held it up, and preserved it by his great power in the Flood.
The ark was part of the wonder of grace in the Flood. The power of God’s grace in the waters lifted up the ark, preserved that ark in the Flood, and caused that ark to rest on Ararat. The fact that Noah built the ark at all was a work of God’s grace. Noah built by faith, so God built the ark.
The pressing question about the ark, is what is its application today? The ark is a word of God in scripture to his covenant friends in the last days about their calling in the midst of a wicked and perverse world. The ark stands as the everlasting reminder of the part that God’s people have in his covenant to cleave unto him in true faith, firm hope, and ardent love and to forsake and condemn the world. The ark is the calling to come out of the world and into the true church of Christ. The ark is the calling of God’s people to build in God’s covenant, kingdom, and church in antithetical separation from and in condemnation of the world.
Things were humming along in that world. Man was making tremendous strides in the world in every area of science and technology. There was a flourishing religious side to the world. They called themselves the sons of God, so those men claimed the name church for themselves. But God says in Genesis 6:13: “the end of all flesh is come before me and the earth is filled with violence through them.” The words “the end of all flesh,” mean the extremity of man’s wickedness. Sinful man had come to the bitter end of the development of sin and unbelief so that flesh was as wicked as flesh could get in that age.
The ark was a word of God that he hated their religion, their sin, their unbelief, and their impenitence, and that he would destroy them. The ark stood like a pointing and accusing finger and like a coffin warning of impending doom.
The ark calls the church to be separate from and condemn the world. The ark is especially the condemnation of the amalgamation of the apostate church and the ungodly world. The believer is not called to build a good and godly culture, hold hands with the wicked, and make a pleasant society, but to build in God’s covenant, kingdom, and church, separate from the world. By building in God’s covenant, the believer condemns as Noah did when he built the ark. When believers build and maintain a separate school, that is an act of condemnation. It says that they can be part of no other. When believers build and maintain a separate church that is an act of condemnation because they cannot belong to another.
There is safety in separation from the ungodly world and apostate church world. In the union of church and world, there is destruction. Denial of the antithesis is the death of the church. Not only the antithesis over against the ungodly world, but also the antithesis between those that adhere faithfully to God’s word and those that have departed from the truth of the word of God and have become like the world. To deny that antithesis and to attempt to overcome it is ecclesiastical suicide as much as if Noah would have stopped building the ark or opened the door of the ark in the Flood.
Second, the ark was the commendation of Noah’s faith. He believed God’s word that there would be a Flood and God’s promise to save him in the ark and to give him a new creation. So he built the ark by faith. This is the great test of a man’s faith: will he believe God though the whole world condemns him and all men forsake him, hate him, and ridicule his work? By his obedience to God, he showed that his faith was true faith in God’s promise.
Third, the ark shows what works are pleasing to God. The ark is not the calling of the church simply to be busy, but the calling of the church is to obey the word of God in everything. The ark is the condemnation of all man’s invented religious works by which he supposes that he is very spiritual and pleasing to God and upon which he expends a great deal of time and energy. Good works which demonstrate our faith are obedience to what God commands in his word.
Fourth, the ark was an expression of Noah’s hope. In all his life Noah labored for the end of the world and the coming of a new one. Every ounce of his energy was pressed into that calling all the while he was harassed by the wicked.
In seeking the world to come, the ark is the condemnation of all world-flight. Noah lived and built in the middle of the world. Noah used the world. If Noah lived today, the world would sue him for damaging the environment because he cut down so many trees. But he used the world for the only legitimate purpose for which it can be used, and that is labor in God’s kingdom, covenant, and church and for the world to come.
The friend of God must seek the world to come and not the world that now is. God calls us to perseverance against terrible opposition. He calls us to live holily and separately from the ungodly world. He calls us to confess his name and love his truth. He calls us to be sorry daily for our sins. He calls us to labor for the things of God’s covenant, God’s kingdom, and God’s church, and God’s truth. These are the things that belong to the world to come.
Originally publsihed in Vol. 78 No. 11
As a creed the Belgic Confession is doctrinal. It is a book of doctrine. The doctrine of the Belgic Confession is the doctrine of the word of God. Scripture is a doctrinal book. It is the revelation of the truth of God in Jesus Christ and contains all that is necessary for the believer’s faith and life. Each doctrine of Scripture is revealed throughout the Bible. For instance God reveals the truth of creation not only in Genesis 1 and 2, but also in the Law of Moses, in the book of Isaiah, and other places in Scripture. The doctrine of creation in the Belgic Confession takes all those passages together and summarizes what God’s word teaches. The Belgic Confession does the same with the rest of the doctrines. It draws together the truth of some doctrine from all of Scripture and summarizes that teaching.
The Reformed churches confess about the Belgic Confession in the Formula of Subscription, “That all the articles and points of doctrine…do fully agree with the Word of God.” The Formula of Subscription is found in the back of The Psalter. It is a promise that every office–bearer makes about the creeds. Because the creeds “fully agree” with the word of God the office–bearer promises to teach and defend that doctrine and not to contradict it in any way. Because the Belgic Confession is the doctrine of Scripture it contains the truth that a believer must know for his comfort and salvation.
The Belgic Confession organizes the doctrine according to the ancient division of doctrine known as the six loci of Reformed doctrine. The Latin word loci is the plural of locus. That word means a topic. There are six main topics of Reformed doctrine. The Belgic Confession treats all the main doctrines of the Reformed faith under six topics. Organizing the doctrine in this way the Belgic Confession is different from the Heidelberg Catechism which develops Reformed doctrine under the theme of comfort. Being a nearly complete treatment of doctrine, the Belgic Confession is different from the Canons of Dordrecht, which focus narrowly on the truth of salvation. Because of its completeness and the way that the Belgic Confession organizes the doctrine it is called a systematic creed.
The first topic is theology, of the study of the doctrine of God. Sometimes the word theology refers to the study of doctrine generally. All of doctrine is the study of God even when the subject is creation, man, the church, or salvation because all of creation, time and history, man, salvation, the church, and then finally the end of all things are the works of God. But in the topic of theology the church studies God himself as he revealed himself in Scripture. Central to the confession of the truth of God in the Confession is that God is triune. This doctrine takes up the majority of the Belgic Confession’s section on theology. The Belgic confession treats this doctrine in Articles 8–11.
The second subject is anthropology, or the study of man. This includes the truth of the creation of the world, the creation of man, the fall, man’s total depravity, and God’s providential government of the world. The Belgic Confession explains this in Articles 12–15. The Belgic Confession’s explanation of man’s total depravity and absolute inability to do or to will the good was central to the Reformed faith’s controversy with Rome. Rome taught that man has a free will. That man is totally depraved is basic to the confession that salvation is all of grace and all the work of God. The condition of the man whom God saves by grace is hopeless, and his salvation is wholly a wonder of grace in which God raises the dead.
The third topic is Christology, or the study of Christ. This is the beginning of the Belgic Confession’s treatment of the wonderful work of God’s grace to save his people from their sins. The Belgic Confession explains the truth about Christ in Articles 16–21. The Belgic Confession appropriately begins this subject with an article on election. That teaches that Christ himself was not an afterthought by God, but God created all things and controlled the fall of man into sin in order to reveal his saving grace in Christ. Further, the Belgic Confession begins with election to impress on us that the whole work of salvation must be understood in relationship to election. Election is the fountain of every saving good. God saves those and those only who are appointed to salvation. The Belgic Confession has only the barest confession regarding election and reprobation. The fuller confession of the doctrine is found in the Canons of Dordrecht.
The fourth topic is soteriology or the study of salvation. We must understand the word salvation to mean the application to the elect by the work of the Holy Spirit of all the benefits that Christ merited on the cross. Christ also saved his people at the cross. At the cross he fully accomplished salvation for his elect as the Belgic Confession says in Article 21, “this only sacrifice, once offered, by which believers are made perfect forever.” That salvation accomplished by Christ must come into the possession of God’s elect people. This is the truth of soteriology. The Belgic Confession explains this doctrine in Articles 22–26.
The fifth subject of doctrine is ecclesiology, or the study of the church. This is the largest section in the Belgic Confession taking up nearly a quarter of its entire length. In addition to the serious controversy that the Reformed churches had with Rome over the matter of salvation, they had a closely related controversy over the doctrine of the church. Rome taught that the institute of Rome was the only church and denied that the church is the elect body of Christ. Rome was a hierarchy ruled from the top down by the pope and she denied the office of all believer and the equality of local churches and office–bearers. Rome’s false doctrine of the church was the toxic environment conducive to the flourishing of Rome’s false doctrine about salvation. Hierarchy and heresy are close friends.
The Belgic Confession explains the truth of the church in Articles 27–36. Central to the Belgic Confession’s doctrine of the church is the confession that the church is the company of the predestinated, the elect body of Christ. This church of Christ is manifested in local true churches of Jesus Christ ruled by elected office bearers—not popes, bishops, and priests, but ministers, elders, and deacons. The Belgic Confession maintains that outside of membership in a true church of Jesus Christ in the world there is no salvation.
A bit strange to us the Belgic Confession includes the doctrine about civil government in the section on the church. The Reformers nearly to a man taught that it was the duty of the government to establish the true church in the world. With this teaching of the Belgic Confession—and only this teaching—we may disagree because early in the 20th century the Reformed churches attached a footnote to the Belgic Confession disagreeing with this point. This also teaches us that while the creeds teach the doctrine that is binding on the Reformed believer they are always subject to the test of Scripture and may be changed if the churches deem that necessary.
The sixth topic is eschatology or the study of the end times. The Belgic Confession treats this in article 37. The doctrine of the end times was not well developed at the time of the Reformation. The main point that the Reformation recovered about the end of the world and the coming of Christ is that the coming of Christ is the object of the believer’s hope. Because of its false doctrine of works righteousness Rome made the coming of Christ the object of terror for the believer. False doctrine about salvation that makes salvation partly the work of man always destroys comfort, assurance, and hope. When the Reformation recovered the truth that salvation is all of God’s grace, it also returned to the believer his comfort, assurance, and hope, especially over against the grand events of the coming of Christ and the final judgment. Though its treatment of the subject is brief the Belgic Confession’s single article contains all the basic truths about the end of the world and impresses on us to look forward to that day in hope and pray ardently for the quick coming of Christ.
Beginning the creed there is also a section on the knowledge of God including a large explanation of the Scripture. The Belgic Confession teaches the truth that is essential for all theology: God is knowable. God is known to us because he has revealed himself. Without the act of God to make himself known to us there would be no knowledge of God and no theology. God makes himself known in creation. This revelation of God is incomplete because it lacks Christ. This revelation of God does not give saving knowledge of God. God purposes by this revelation to leave man without excuse for his idolatry, unthankfulness, and failure to worship God. The full, complete, and saving revelation of God is Jesus Christ. We know him from the sacred Scripture. The Bible is the only source of all right doctrine and true knowledge of God.
The form of the Belgic Confession teaches that the truth of Scripture must be systematized. That means that the truths that Scripture reveals must be organized in a logical fashion. The truth of God can be systematized because it is logical and does not contain any contradictions. This idea about the truth of Scripture is attacked. Today the thinking is that the truth is paradoxical. What is meant by paradoxical is not an apparent contradiction which can and must be resolved, but that the truth is entirely contradictory. So it is taught as profound theology that God loves and desires to save all men and there is election and reprobation, that God is three Persons and one Person, or that the Three Persons of the Trinity are all coequal and the Son is subordinate to the Father and the Spirit subordinate to the Son. These are irresolvable contradictions. Such contradictions make the truth of God unknowable. If in the field of mathematics 2+2=4 and 2+2=6, then the truth of what 2+2 equals is unknowable. When this is done in theology, God is rendered unknowable. In churches where these contradictions are taught, the knowledge of God is taken away to the destruction of faith and godliness. The Belgic Confession teaches in its very structure that the truth is one harmonious whole without contradictions. The truth can and must be arranged logically. By means of this logical structure, God is known more and more by the believer.
Its doctrinal content and order are the beauty and the glory of the Belgic Confession as a creed. It teaches the knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3). There is no grander subject that the believing young person can study than the theology of the Belgic Confession. Its doctrine is the truth of God as revealed in the sacred scripture for our faith, salvation, and comfort.
Originally published in: Vol. 78 No. 10
Union with Christ is the profound and mysterious description of the reality of the elect believer’s gracious salvation. All men by nature are in connection with Adam. In Adam, all are conceived and born dead in sin. In Adam, all perish. In Christ, all his people are made alive. He is the last Adam, the head of the new human race. In him alone is life and salvation. To be united to Christ is salvation. There is an eternal connection with Christ because we are chosen in him in the decree of election. Because we are eternally his, Christ died at the cross in the place of and as the representative of his elect people and paid their redemption price. In time every one of God’s elect people are graciously and really united to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit so that they become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. We are made one with him by faith. Faith is essentially the union of the believer with Christ. By that faith, the elect are partakers of all of Christ’s riches and gifts.
1 Corinthians 6:13–20 speaks about the believer’s union with Christ and makes a practical application of that truth to sex. There are many practical—pragmatic—reasons not to have sex before marriage. The Bible speaks about these too. You will destroy your body with a disease, have a child in your teen years, ruin a reputation, or wreck your finances. But there is a profounder reason: you are joined with Christ, a member of his body. Will you pollute the body of Christ with fornication?
The believer is joined with Christ. The Apostle asks the question, “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ?” (v.15). So he teaches that not only is our soul joined with Christ, but also our body. Christ saves the believer body and soul. God saves by uniting the believer body and soul to Christ. The believer in his body will be raised from the dead in the day of Jesus Christ. In heaven, the body will be the perfect instrument for the praise and glory of God. So in this life already the body must be the instrument for the Christian’s new life in Christ.
The Apostle continues speaking about union with Christ when he says, “But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (v.17). The deep reality of the believer’s union with Christ is a one spirit union. The analogy is to an earthly marriage. In an earthly marriage, God makes a man and a woman one flesh. In our union with Christ, God makes the believer one spirit with Christ. The spirit mentioned there is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. So the Apostle goes on to ask, “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?” (v.19). Being one spirit with Christ we are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ who makes of us his temple, brings Christ to us and makes us one with Christ.
The important point the Apostle is making in all of this is that the believer’s body is Christ’s, the body is joined to Christ, the body is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, the body is one with Christ, and in the body the believer is to be for Christ.
Since the body is Christ’s the body is not for fornication. The Apostle says, “Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord” (v.13). God did not make the body and redeem the body so that the body can be used for fornication. God made and redeemed the body to be an instrument to serve the Lord. Then he adds something surprising, “And the Lord for the body” (v.13). God made the Lord Jesus Christ. He made the Lord Jesus Christ in the wonder of the incarnation, his perfect obedience, his atoning death, and the miracle of the resurrection. By the resurrection in particular he made Jesus both Lord and Christ. By the wonder of union with Christ, he made Jesus our Lord really and spiritually. He did not do all that so that the body can be used for fornication.
Fornication is a sin against the seventh commandment. It includes any unlawful sexual activity outside the marriage bond. Sex is not the evil. Sex in marriage is good. Sex outside of marriage is evil. It is fornication. The apostle mentions one form of fornication when he says, “joined to an harlot” (v.16). The young men of Corinth would buy a prostitute to satisfy their lusts. Today one has to mention the epidemic of pornography that plagues the young men and the young women of the churches. Men—and women, too—join themselves to filthy harlots in books, magazines, on phones, tablets, computers, and through video game consoles by means of their eyes, imaginations, and self-gratifying activities. By the word fornication, then, the Apostle means any and all sexual activity by the young person before marriage. All that leads up to sex— including filthy dancing—and all that entices to sex—including suggestive gestures and provocative dressing—is included in the word fornication.
Fornication is a sin with and against the body. The Spirit says, “Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (v.18). Fornication is a sin with the body. Fornication is an abuse of the body. Fornication is a sin against the body. The sin of fornication in a peculiar way defiles and degrades that body. But the body is Christ’s so the fornicator sin’s with and so defiles and degrades a member of Christ.
Fornication also gives that body to another. He explains when he says, “What? Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? For two, saith he, shall be one flesh” (v.16). In the act of sex, one is joined to another in a dark, devilish, and fleshly imitation of marriage. As in a marriage sex outside of marriage is a sin against the spouse, so the Christian young person joined to Christ sins against Christ. The Christian young person takes a member of Christ—his body—and gives that member of Christ to a harlot. The Christian young person by fornication is joined to the harlot and so pollutes that member of Christ—the body—by the harlot. So it is with all fornication. By the particular act of fornication—pornography, sex before marriage, sexually activity of any kind—the believer defiles the member of Christ and sins against Christ.
Because fornication is a sin with the body, and the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost in the believer’s union with Christ, the fornicator is also sacrilegious desecrator of the Holy Spirit’s temple. It is as though a Jew in Solomon’s day walked into the newly consecrated temple and smeared pig fat all over the floor, walls, and furniture. So the fornicator defiles the Spirit’s temple by fornication in a shocking affront to the Spirit and the Lord who is that temple by his Spirit.
The calling is to “flee fornication” (v.18). Flee the sin and every opportunity or temptation to it. It is not a sin to which the Christian young person can come close and not fall. The wise Father asks his son a rhetorical question about fornication: “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned” (Prov. 6:27)? The young person must flee and get as far away as possible. For the Christian young person who has committed fornication, flee from it to the cross of Jesus Christ for forgiveness to take away the guilt, shame, and defilement of that sin. Over against the desires for sex and temptations to fornication, flee to the cross of Christ for the power of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ to deliver from the power and dominion of that sin. The Christian young person is not a slave to his passions, lusts, and desires, but is the possession of Jesus Christ his Lord and in Christ, there is grace to flee that sin and rule over those passions.
The calling also is “glorify God in your body” (v.20). The Apostle adds, “in your spirit,” because such a sanctified walk begins in the spirit and carries through to the body (v.20). The believer lives in light of the reality that he is joined to Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. Knowing that, he honors that in his body. Glorifying God in your body is the sanctified use of the body in one’s calling now and abstaining from all sexual activity until marriage. Sex is not the sin. Fornication is the sin. Flee fornication. Glorify God in your bodies.
The synod of Dordt met during 1618–19 to settle the controversy about the doctrines of grace that had erupted around the person and teaching of the pestilential James Arminius. As a minister he underhandedly spread his lies from 1590 until his death in 1609. He made predestination the particular object of his attacks. The hope of many that his death would end the controversy did not happen. By devious methods Arminius had succeeded in infecting a large following of ministers and former students with his heresy. From him the false doctrine gained the name Arminianism.
The Arminians’ hatred of predestination knew no bounds, but they reserved their most vile attacks for the doctrine of reprobation. The conclusion to the Canons of Dordt give examples of the Arminians’ slanders: “Predestination…leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion…is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil, [is] the stronghold of Satan…[and] makes God the author of sin, unjust, tyrannical, hypocritical…it renders men carnally secure” and lets them “live as they please.” With these and many other evil accusations the Arminians vilified the Reformed doctrine of predestination.
The Arminians’ heretical doctrine of predestination had three pillars: First, God’s universal love for and desire that all men be saved. Second, out of his universal love God offers salvation to all men in the preaching. Third, sinful man has a free will—the ability to choose or not to choose God’s offer of salvation.
The result of these three positions was a doctrine of predestination based on foreseen faith. God chose faith in Jesus Christ as the condition man must fulfill to be saved, and God elected those whom he saw “would believe…and persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith” unto the end (1, error 1). The Arminians also taught “that…faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, godliness, and perseverance are not fruits of…election…but are conditions…required beforehand…by those who will be fully elected, and are causes without which…election to glory does not occur” (1, error 5). Thus Arminian election is God’s choice of conditions that man must fulfill and God’s choice of those whom he saw would fulfill those conditions. Election, therefore, depends on man. God’s choice is based on man’s choice. Man’s choice determines who will be saved.
The first head of the Canons set down the Reformed truth about predestination, which refers to God’s decree, eternally determining the final destinies of all men. Predestination has two parts, election and reprobation. Together they make up the Reformed confession of sovereign, double predestination.
Article 7 gives the Reformed truth about election: Election is God’s “sovereign,” “unchangeable,” and eternal “purpose,” or will. Election is based on God’s decision alone, not on any worth or worthiness in those chosen. Election is God’s choice of certain individuals—God chooses persons not conditions. Election is gracious, undeserved and unmerited by those chosen. Election is eternal, “before the foundation of the world.” Election is unto salvation, which includes all the blessings of salvation, especially faith. Election is “in Christ,” the mediator and head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.
The other side of predestination is reprobation, which is God’s eternal rejection of some: “Not all, but some only are elected while others are passed by.” These “God…decreed to leave in the common misery into which they…willfully plunged themselves…leaving them…to follow their own ways,” and at last to be condemned and punished forever, “not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins.” The synod warned that this decree “by no means makes God the author of sin…but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof” (1.15). In reprobation God passes men by with “the grace of election” and appoints them to damnation. Reprobation is not the cause of sin in the same way that election is the cause of faith. Man sins of himself. God does not reprobate man because of his sin, but out of his sovereign will.
Of special importance over against the Arminian corruption of the truth is the Canon’s teaching that election is the cause of faith. Faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. Where does faith come from? “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not…proceeds from God’s eternal decree,” according to which “he graciously softens the hearts of the elect…and inclines them to believe” (1.6). “Election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended” as the Arminians taught. Rather, God elects men “to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc.” For this reason the Canons call election “the fountain of every saving good” (1.9). All the blessings of salvation, especially faith, and finally eternal life come to the elect from election like water from a fountain.
What is the ultimate explanation, then, why some do not believe? This also “proceeds from God’s eternal decree” according to which he “leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy” (1.6). In God’s reprobation of some, he decreed “not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion” (1.15).
Both election and reprobation glorify God as God alone. In the “decree of election and reprobation” is “especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and…the righteous discrimination between men equally involved in ruin” (1.6). All men deserve to perish in their sin. God’s choice, not man’s decision, determines who is saved and who is not. In election is displayed the profound mercy of God toward his people in his will to deliver them from their misery. Reprobation declares that he is just. Reprobation also serves “to illustrate and recommend…the eternal and unmerited grace of election” since God does not desire the salvation of all, but his elect alone (1.15).
Election “is clearly revealed in the Scriptures,” and “is still to be published” in the preaching “for the glory of God,” and the “enlivening and comforting his people” (1.14). The doctrine does not make men careless and profane, but “the sense and certainty of this election” gives the children of God reason for humility, praise, and “rendering grateful returns of ardent love,” to God (1.13). It also comforts the elect in the unchangeableness of God’s love for them and the certainty of their salvation because his election cannot be “interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled” (1.11).
The Canons include an appropriate warning: “To those who murmur at the free grace of election and just severity of reprobation, we answer…Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? (Rom. 9:20) and quote the language of our Savior: Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? (Matt. 20:15)” (1.18).
Head one on predestination ends the only way a believer can when he contemplates “these mysteries” regarding God’s awesome decree—with a doxology! “With holy adoration…we exclaim…O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Rom. 11:33–36).”
In his fine essay on the providence of God, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield mentions the frequent saying of a certain woman familiar to him. That housewife was fond of saying, “We will not be robbed of God’s providence.” That quotation and its source are instructive for the consideration of the doctrine of providence, especially that doctrine’s comfort to the believer.
First, the quotation makes very real the threat to the church’s and the believer’s confession of the doctrine of providence. The threat to the doctrine is old. It was present among the Israelites already in the wilderness when they tempted God with the question whether he was among them or not. Today especially the crisis in the doctrine of providence becomes acute because many new threats to the doctrine have arisen. There is open theism, which teaches that God is open to the inputs of man in his government of the world. There is process theology, which teaches not an immutable God, but an idol that develops with the world. There is also reassertion of Arminianism, which is the mother of those gross heresies and denies providence by teaching that God is dependent on the will of the sinner in salvation, a blatant denial of God’s sovereignty over all things. This makes no mention of the serious attack on the doctrine of providence that is leveled by the acceptance of evolutionary theory in nearly all North American Reformed denominations. Evolutionism necessarily denies providence because it enthrones chance, providence’s mortal enemy, on the throne of the universe as the explanation of the appearance of the species.
The doctrine of providence today then is worthy of a fresh defense because there are forces that would rob the church of providence. If you and I are spiritually sensitive to these attacks and the threat they pose to the Christian doctrine of providence, our conviction must likewise be, “We will not be robbed of God’s providence.”
Second, when that farmer’s wife said, “We will not be robbed of God’s providence,” she revealed her conviction and the conviction of the Reformed faith that the doctrine of providence is a precious possession. For believers to have the doctrine taken from them is to have taken from them a precious possession. Providence is a possession of the Reformed and Christian faith because it is revealed in scripture. It is a precious possession because it is the source of rock-solid comfort in the church’s and believers’ tribulations. In their confession of providence, believers rests in the God and Father of Jesus Christ their Lord who with a gracious regard for them rules over the world, and over every detail of their lives, especially the evil events. To lose the doctrine is to lose that confession, and to lose that confession is to be thrown back into the hopelessness of unbelief, as the apostle describes the condition of the unregenerated man and the believer by nature: “Ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh…ye were without…hope, and without Christ in the world” (Eph. 2: 11–12). If to have your possessions taken away is robbery, to have this aspect of the faith, which is the source of such comfort, taken away is the worst robbery. Theologians and ministers who take the doctrine away are thieves who break through and steal one of the most precious possessions of the believer in this life.
Third, that quotation is revealing because it was the confession of a housewife. There are hundreds of books on providence. Many of them consist of scholarly debate, mostly friendly, between philosophers who are loosely connected to the church, do little or no preaching, and serve in institutions of higher learning that are loosely connected to the church. There in the ivory tower debates are held and books are written. There are notable exceptions.
But the doctrine of providence is the possession of the church and of the believer. It is not the possession of dry theologians who can debate endlessly about the relationship between causes and God, or God and evil, like the medieval ones debated about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is not the possession of philosophers who debate ad nauseum whether there is such a thing as providence at all, or who do all in their power to mitigate it, deny it, or overthrow it, and with that to rob the church.
Providence is not the possession of those who are earthly and carnal, isolated from the sufferings of the world, are blissfully unaware of pain, or who in that pain merely acquiesce like grim stoics. But providence is the possession of believers who live in the midst of a valley of tears, in the midst of death, suffering, and sorrow, but who confess God’s sovereignty for good and that all things come not by chance, but by God’s fatherly hand.
They are believers who in their daily lives, whether as mothers or bricklayers, as housewives or truck drivers, have crying children and very sick loved ones, who experience death and loss and grief of spirit and anguish of soul for the straying loved one. Those believers stand in such troubles, sorrows, and tribulations, and with uplifted head look to their God and Father who now rules over all things in Jesus Christ for their good and salvation. Because of the truth of providence they confess in that sorrow that all things work together for good to them who love God and are called according to his purpose.
If we know in the midst of our trials the severe temptation to doubt God’s goodness, then let us have the same conviction of that housewife who gripped the princely theologian, so that we say with her and the church of all ages, “We will not be robbed of God’s providence.”
The doctrine of providence in the language of the Belgic Confession in article 13 “affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care.”
The comfort is for the believer. It comforts the believer with God: his power over against my weakness and frailty; his greatness over against my puniness; his steadfastness over against all the vicissitudes of this life; his good will over against great evil.
The comfort of providence for the believer is not a vague, warm, or fuzzy feeling. The comfort of providence is not that I will have no trouble in this world. The comfort is that in Jesus Christ the God of providence is my God and my Father and is favorable to me in the world in all things, just as surely as he stands against the wicked and gives no peace to them in all things.
That comfort means that as the believer stands in the world that is exceeding sorrowful and sinful and in which he suffers much misery, over against all the evil, sorrow, misery and suffering of the world and of himself individually, by faith he posits the truth, I belong to Jesus Christ and my Father is in absolute control of all things, from the death of my child to the falling of a hair from my head to the violent, cruel, and deadly opposition of the wicked.
That comfort means that I stand in that world and this side of the grave and confess on the ground that he is my God and my Father that he is working this and all things for my good, for the good of his elect church, and for the glory of Jesus Christ and his own name, so that on the basis of this confession I am assured that nothing can be against me, and that these present sufferings work for me a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
For the believer then the doctrine of providence is in this sin-cursed and miserable world of unspeakable consolation, good news for the afflicted, and the promise of a new day that will dawn in the coming of Jesus Christ from heaven.
Because of the sanctifying power of faith in providence I am able to be thankful in prosperity and patient in adversity.
Confessing providence, I am thankful in prosperity. In prosperity it is only the faith that I receive all these things from the hand of my Father that also makes me serve him and not things.
Confessing providence, I am patient in adversity. Faith in the doctrine of providence silences my rebellious heart and lips. I acquiesce to his will. I endure it. That is patience. I submit to it and begin to will it and to glory in tribulations, also knowing that God works all things for good to those who love him and are the called according to his purpose.
It is comfort in providence that in the midst of evil I sing as the farmer—or maybe his wife too—in Habakkuk 3:17–18: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
There you see vividly demonstrated a believer who will not be robbed of God’s providence. He sang not as a stoic for whom life and death were the same, for whom suffering and prosperity were the same. He did not sing as some untried and naive man. He was definitely aware of suffering; he was intensely aware of it; like Job he was in the midst of it.
He sang because like Job he was also intensely aware of who did this: he did not say the devil did it, the weather did it, or the world did it. He did not say either that God did it and then blaspheme his name. He said, “The Lord gave and the Lord took away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” He sang, “God is king forever, let the nations tremble.” He sang of a hope that is reserved in heaven for him, of a city that hath foundations, and of a newborn world.
He sang because this was all the work of his heavenly Father and the God of his salvation who gave him Jesus Christ, and with Christ turns all things to his profit. He would not robbed of God’s providence because it was the source of unspeakable consolation to him. Let us confess it and so be comforted in that confession.
The Reformed confession of providence includes the confession that God is sovereign over evil. This is a particular emphasis of the Reformed confession of providence. The Belgic Confession in article 13 gives a general statement of the doctrine of providence and quickly moves to an extended treatment of the doctrine of providence and evil. The Heidelberg Catechism in its teaching of providence singles out “whatever evils he sends men, in this valley of tears” and speaks not only of “prosperity,” but also of “adversity.”
This brings up the problem of evil: if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?
From one viewpoint the explanation of evil in the world is rather easy because of evil’s origin in Satan through his corruption of his glory and then through the sin of Adam; evil is in the universe. Often the statement of the problem of evil ignores the origin of sin: God made Adam in the garden on the sixth day and told him that in the day he ate of the forbidden tree he would surely die. God did not make men so evil or the creation so marred, but he made them very good, which at the very least means perfect and without sin or suffering. Evil is man’s fault, and ultimately every believer in his suffering in this world must confess his part in the existence of evil in the world because he is guilty of Adam’s sin.
This is the practical purpose of the penetratingly bold question regarding misery in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s day 3: “Did God, then, make man so wicked and perverse?” Man, every man, must confess his fault in the existence of evil, for in Adam all sinned. Over that fall God was sovereign, controlling and executing it.
From another viewpoint the explanation of evil, especially the suffering of the ungodly in this world, is not perplexing for the believer who knows the righteous and holy wrath of God against sin, and that God punishes sin “temporally and eternally,” as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches. Sometimes the punishment of sin is success and hardness in sin so that in the language of Psalm 73, God sets the wicked in slippery places by their earthly prosperity in order to cast them into destruction. The wicked lays his head on his silk and feather pillow and wakes up in hell, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable. Sometimes the punishment is such that the unbeliever and wicked suffer in this life.
The worst of suffering for the wicked in this life is nothing compared to hell. To suffer at man’s hand is nothing in comparison to the presence of God in his wrath. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not fear those who kill the body only, but fear him who kills body and soul in hell.”
But that does not yet answer the question, why the fall and all that misery? Was it included in God’s decree and controlled by his providence? Why? Further, what of the suffering of God’s dear children, his friends and servants, those whose sins he has forgiven for Christ’s sake and whom he blesses so that his favor rests on them all their days? How is the suffering of the elect to be explained?
So we must explain and we can explain the teaching of the Bible and the Reformed creeds that God in his providence is sovereign over all evil. God’s sovereignty over evil means that God decreed evil in his counsel, that he controls and carries out in the world the execution of his counsel, yet in such a way that he is not the author of sin, and cannot be charged with the sins that are committed.
With regard to wicked men and devils, God upholds them in their wicked natures and rebellious lives. With regard to the sins of men and devils, God decreed these things as that which he hates and for which he has determined a good end. With regard to his government of sin, he does so in such a way that he cannot be charged with those sins or that wickedness.
With regard to the suffering of his people, nothing befalls them in this life except by his will; it comes from his own hand, and he turns it to their profit. By the confession of God’s sovereignty over evil we mean that God governs and controls it all for a good purpose: he averts all evil or turns it to the profit of his people. All things work together for good to them that love God, who are the called according to his purpose. All things must serve Jesus Christ. That is, God has determined the utter defeat of evil and its just punishment too.
Whenever we say that, objectors immediately say that this doctrine makes God the author of sin.
First, we reply to these objectors that the burden of proof lies with them. They must prove that to say that because God decrees evil and controls it, since he is not a man and his relation to all things is not like a man’s, that such a teaching makes him the author of sin. We also add what the apostle Paul said in reply to a pernicious comment of man, “Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God.” Let the objectors establish that the teaching that God as God is sovereign over evil makes him the author of it. The Reformed faith simply says in article 13 of the Belgic Confession: “His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
Second, we say to these objectors that the alternative is terrible. If God is not sovereign over evil so that he decreed it and carries it out, then who is sovereign? Is evil a power outside of God? Is the devil sovereign? Or are good and evil two equally sovereign forces dueling in and for the world, with the believer is in the midst, and the outcome is in doubt? Is the relationship between God and evil dualistic? About such dualism the Reformed believer says in the Belgic Confession article 13, “We reject and abhor the error…of the Manichees.” The Manichees taught dualism. Rejecting that Manichean doctrine that evil has its origin of itself, the creeds also reject any denial of the sovereignty of God over evil.
Third, the creeds are perfectly clear on the doctrine. No one who claims to be Reformed can deny this teaching that God is sovereign over evil. The Heidelberg Catechism in its treatment of providence in Lord’s day 10 teaches that God sends not only herbs, grass, meat, drink, health, and fruitful years, which are certainly good, but also that he sends adversity, drought, barren years, sickness, and poverty. The Belgic Confession, teaching about providence in article 13 that “nothing happens in this world without his appointment” goes on to apply this to the greatest evil—the devil’s and wicked men’s persecution of the church. The Reformed faith says, “God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.”
Fourth, the Reformed faith teaches this on the basis of scripture. The reason that many deny God’s sovereignty over evil is not because scripture is unclear. To deny it is to deny some of the clearest and most pointed scriptural passages about the sovereignty of God. In Moses God says that according to his decree to destroy Pharaoh God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Amos teaches in Amos 3:6: “Shall there be evil in the city, and the Lord hath not done it?” This teaching the Bible makes abundantly clear in Job. Job would not have had a problem if he would have said that the devil had done it. That would have been end of the book of Job. But Job’s problem came—and he gave it the most poignant expression—when he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And for forty-one more chapters the book explains that theme.
The Bible teaches with regard to one of the most wicked things done in the whole Old Testament—the cursing of David: “So let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so?” (2 Sam. 16:10).
At the heart and as the key to unlock the truth of providence in God’s sovereignty over evil stands the cross of Jesus Christ. The most wicked and most perplexing suffering in the world is not that some human suffers. It is not even that one of God’s elect people suffers, or that I suffer, but it is that the Son of God suffered so at the cross. About all Christ’s suffering the Bible says that God did it. Preaching the cross of Jesus Christ on Pentecost morning, Peter said, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). Again, explaining its own suffering of the evil of persecution, the church looks again at the cross of Jesus Christ in Acts 4:27–28: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.”
The cross unlocks the sovereignty of God over evil. Only by faith in the Christ of the cross, the cross at which God bruised Jesus Christ for our sins, does one also confess about all evil that God is sovereign and for that evil works the good end. By the greatest evil—the cross—God worked the greatest good—salvation. We see there too the particularity of his dealings with men, for the cross was for his sheep, as Christ said, and not for the reprobate.
Also, by implication, to deny that God is sovereign over evil is to deny that he was likewise sovereign at the cross and thus to deny the cross and to deny salvation in the cross. For if the cross in every detail was not of God, the cross is worthless to accomplish salvation.
Further, in my suffering evil in this world, the cross is the ground of my hope that I stand immovably in God’s favor. God in his providence is not favorable to all, but only to those who are in Christ Jesus by election, redemption, and faith. In the cross of Jesus Christ I believe by faith that I am righteous before God; therefore whether he sends me good or evil, he sends it to me for my profit, and especially any evil that he sends to me in this valley of tears cannot come as a punishment for sin, because he has already judged the believer in the cross.
The cross is also the power to sanctify me in the midst of evil so that that evil works patience, experience, and hope. The cross is God’s testimony to me in the midst of evil that God is favorable toward me and working my salvation. Christ and his cross are the gifts of grace that abound over and above all that was lost in Adam.
In Christ Jesus and his cross we also see the sweeping scale of the scope of providence as it comprehends evil within it. The scope of providence includes all things and brings all things to the goal through the cross, that is, through the way of redemption, through the way of death, darkness, sin, the curse, through resurrection to glory.
In Jesus Christ we see that the purpose of God in the creation of the world never was Adam, but that Adam and his fall and everything that happens after it serve Jesus Christ and the revelation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, by whom and for whom God made all things and in whom he is determined to wrap up all in a new heaven and a new earth as the eternal habitation of God, Jesus Christ, and just men, women, and children made perfect, and from which all the wicked are disinherited.
In God’s sovereignty over evil we have particularly the comfort of the doctrine of providence, which is why the Reformed confess it with such relish. To that comfort we turn next time.
When we speak of God’s providence as his personal government of the world, we mean that he governs all things. The scope of providence extends to all things. It includes the entire universe, every creature in the universe, and every event that happens in that universe from the explosion of a star, to the oscillations of the tiniest atomic particle, to the rise and fall of kings and nations.
This is simply the implication of the confession that God’s providence is his almighty and everywhere present power. Since it is almighty, there is nothing that he wills to do that he cannot do, and since nothing happens apart from his will, all things are in his hand. This is the implication that God is God. The Reformed confession of providence will have nothing to do with the pagan notion that the gods take care of the big things but ignore the little things. Even the number of hairs on a man’s head and the falling of an insignificant sparrow are included in his providence.
The Reformed confession of providence is equally opposed to the false doctrines of both Deism and chance.
Deism is the false doctrine that describes God’s relationship to the world as similar to that between a master craftsman and a watch that he made. If the master craftsman is competent, he makes a watch that can function without his intervention. The deists were those in the history of the world who while they spoke of God, the creator and Father, nevertheless taught that God made the world so precisely that the world runs on its own without—as they called it—divine intervention. The deists were particularly opposed to miracles, which they call super natural interventions. According to the deist, the world is a finely tuned and exquisitely fashioned piece of craftsmanship, and it can run on its own.
Over against that idea the Reformed faith has said that God controls everything as it were by his hands, so that his providence is not set of divine laws, but the good government of God himself as he is involved in every aspect of creation. There is no such thing as divine intervention, for every event is to be traced back to God. Over against the deist, miracles are to be seen as the works of God’s grace to perfect his creation according to his purpose in Christ. There is strictly speaking no such thing as a law of nature, but rather the orderly government to the Triune God.
The Reformed faith in its confession of providence is equally opposed to the notion of chance, fortune, or luck. It is this false doctrine that the Reformed creeds single out and reject emphatically. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s day 10 says that “all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” In the Belgic Confession article 14 the Reformed faith says that God who made the world, “did not forsake the world to fortune or chance,” and that same article says that we reject the errors of the “Epicureans who say that God regards nothing but leaves all things to chance.”
There is a massive resurgence of chance in Reformed churches today through the wide-spread acceptance of the evolutionary worldview. Nearly all North American Reformed denominations fail to discipline heretical teachers of evolution and tolerate it in their fellowships, if they have not become wholly intolerant to the doctrine of creation. Evolution is not only an assault on creation and Genesis 1–3, but also an assault on providence and thus on the doctrine of God. Evolution is a massive assault on providence because creation and providence are closely connected. God’s making of the world and his rule of the world are so tightly tied together that the denial of one necessarily denies the other. Further, the espousal of evolution necessarily denies providence because it enthrones chance, providence’s—and God’s—mortal enemy on the throne of the universe. The evolutionary worldview cannot be reconciled with the Reformed worldview of providence. It is at war with providence and the God of providence.
Over against these errors in particular the Bible teaches and the Reformed creeds insist that God’s providence includes all things. There is nothing that happens in the creation, on the earth, above the earth, or beneath the earth, that happens without his having decreed it, upheld it, and governed it.
We particularly include here the eternal destinies of all men and God’s leading them to their destinies. The Arminian doctrine that the salvation of human beings is contingent upon the free will of the willing sinner’s accepting God’s offer of salvation is a denial of providence. By teaching that God is dependent on the will of the sinner in salvation, Arminianism is a blatant denial of God’s sovereignty over all things. It places the eternal destinies of men in their own hands, and thus takes them out of God’s hands.
Denying God’s sovereignty, Arminianism is the mother of the gross heresy of open theism that was begotten in the mind of the Arminian theologian Clark Pinnock. Open theism teaches that God is open to the inputs of man in his government of the world. This heretical view is the underlying assumption in a popular and widely held view that prayer changes God, which itself stands behind the idea of prayer chains, so that humans suppose they are heard by God for their much speaking, and not that the fervent and effectually prayers even of one righteous man avail much. Consistently developing the Arminian idea that man has a free will, open theism teaches that God does not know the outcome of choices that men make, and consequently that God does not have a definite counsel for all things—especially not the salvation of sinners—but leaves many things to the choices of men and adapts himself to those choices. According to the open theist God is not sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscient, knowing even the heart of man and turning it wherever he wills, but God exhibits a kind of omni-competence to deal with every eventuality men’s choices present to him. Especially is God open to changing his plans according to prayers of men.
Over against this, the Reformed faith confesses that as part of God’s counsel is God’s eternal appointment of all men to their eternal destinies, elect and reprobate, according to his own will.
Now applying that truth especially to providence, we also say that according to his decree God also deals with those men in this world and brings them to those destines by all sorts means.
Here we address particularly the error of common grace that God in his dealings with men in the world blesses the reprobate ungodly with a common grace favor in this life that gives to them rain and sunshine and earthly prosperity, restrains sin in their hearts, mitigates the effect of the fall, and enables fallen man to do much good.
Especially are we opposed to the teaching of common grace that God gives to the reprobate wicked the gospel preaching and expresses by means of that preaching his desire to save them—the well-meant gospel offer and the most offensive part of common grace. It is a teaching that most have made the touchstone of supposedly Reformed orthodoxy and a denial of which earns one the name hyper-Calvinist today. That teaching and with it the whole teaching of common grace denies providence.
God’s dealings with men in his providence are according to his decree, so that his favor rests upon the elect and righteous all their days, and the curse of God is in the house of the ungodly, so that he gives all that he gives to them in his wrath toward them and for the purpose of their damnation.
This is the teaching of the Reformed faith in all the creeds, which teaches that God’s grace is particular. His favor rests on his people all their days and there is no peace to the wicked. No one has yet given any creedal proof for common grace.
That is because teaching the particular grace of God to the elect, the creeds teach scripture, and scripture teaches no common grace and especially no well-meant gospel offer. In Psalm 73 with regard to plagued saints, the believer confesses that God is good to Israel and only to Israel, and with regard to the prosperous wicked he confesses that by means of that prosperity God is not blessing the wicked, but sets them up in slippery places for the purpose of casting them down to destruction. That psalm also gives the devastating practical effect of teaching that God blesses the wicked with their earthly prosperity, which is the inescapable, intolerable, and despair- inducing conclusion that then he curses the righteous in his calamity.
This is also what the wise man of Proverbs taught his son in Proverbs 3:33 when he taught him that the curse of God is in the house of the wicked, so that in giving him that house and with that house God curses the wicked, but that his blessing is upon the righteous. The wise man also gives the practical reason for the insistence that God does not bless the wicked: so that the believer does not envy the wicked and his prosperity and imitate his wicked ways, but receives whatever God sends him in his life, enjoying the good with thanksgiving and enduring the adversity with patience. Common grace, denying God’s particularly gracious dealings with his people alone, brings with it not only despair but also worldliness.
God’s providence while it is over all, is never general in the sense that he governs favorably toward all or sends to all in his favor rain and sunshine, but his providence must also be viewed from his purpose in Christ and his particular favor toward his elect people in Christ and thus also his purpose toward the reprobate whom he hates. Psalm 145:20: “The Lord preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.”
Here as well the Reformed faith in its insistence that God is sovereign over all insists especially that God is sovereign in his providence over evil. Indeed, it may be said that this is a specific emphasis of the Reformed confession of providence. We are not interested in a theodicy. Theodicy is God’s work. He will defend himself and the justice of all that he has done in the day of the revelation of his wrath and of the judgment of all men. He will so justify himself that every knee will bow, whether willingly or not, and will confess that Christ is Lord. We are interested in explaining in light of scripture and the Reformed creeds the Reformed confession that God is sovereign over evil. To that we turn next time.
The doctrine of providence is the confession of the church. In the Old Testament Enoch preached it when he preached that all things culminate in the Lord’s coming. Noah lived by faith in it and built an ark to the saving of his house. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that God suffered no man to do them harm. The doctrine of providence stands as the centerpiece of the book of Job. The Psalms ring from beginning to end with the truth of God’s providence as his intimate and minute care of his world that he made and his control of every detail in it. Jesus taught his disciples God’s providence when he taught them that God numbers the hairs of their head, clothes the lilies of the field, feeds the ravens, and cares much more for his people. At the time of the apostles in the midst of great tribulation the church confessed concerning the cross of Jesus Christ that Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the leaders of the people did whatsoever God’s hand and counsel determined to be done.
With the church of all ages, the Reformed creeds clearly teach God’s providence, outstandingly in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s days one, nine, and ten, and in the Belgic Confession article 13. The Reformed faith stands as the true development of the Christian faith in its confession of the doctrine of providence.
The confession of providence is an implication of the confession of the doctrine of God. The Heidelberg Catechism, following the Apostle’s Creed, teaches this doctrine in the church’s confession of the Fatherhood of the Triune God. When the church confessed, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” she confessed as a distinct part of God’s fatherhood not only that the Triune God created the world in six days, as he said in his word, but that he also upholds and governs the same by his almighty power.
The doctrine of providence is also a confession of faith. The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkhouwer wrote of a crisis in the doctrine of providence. His analysis of the cause of this crisis is that in the past unscientific man believed the doctrine more readily, but today science has eroded faith in the doctrine. That analysis ignores the reality that man by nature never believes God’s providence. Man, whether ancient or modern, whether scientific or superstitious, does not believe God’s providence because he does not believe in God through Jesus Christ. The doctrine of providence is a confession of faith that follows from faith’s knowledge of God, who is our Father in Christ. Apart from the gift of faith no one does or can believe and confess the providence of God.
It is faith in God’s fatherhood that is likewise the essence of providence. A human may bring forth and become a father and not care for his child, but it is inconceivable that God as Father would bring forth and not care for his creation. It is this care of God as Father for the world that he made that the church intended to express by the word providence. Faith is the certain knowledge of and hearty confidence in that care of God not only for others, but for me also.
But then to deny that God made the world and that he likewise upholds and governs that world in every detail is also to attempt to overthrow the whole doctrine of God. This is what the Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield taught when he said that the confession of providence belongs to a “consistent, Christian theism.” From that point of view the doctrine of providence is simple. It is the implication of the truth that God is God. Since he is God and he created the world, then all things that happen in the world happen according to his appointment and government. To confess that God is God, and to say that I believe in the God and Father of Jesus Christ is to say that I believe in this God of providence.
The word providence means to see in advance, and thus it comes to mean to provide for some foreseen event. If we take the word in its original meaning it is, then, wholly unsatisfactory to describe the Christian and Reformed doctrine of providence. Providence is not God’s provision for his creation in light what God sees coming, as we might see that winter is coming and prepare some canned goods.
Providence is a theological term that has been adapted by the Christian church to describe a certain doctrine regardless of the literal or original meaning of the term. The doctrinal content from scripture must define the term.
By providence we mean the omnipotent and everywhere present power of God whereby he upholds and governs all things according to his eternal counsel.
Providence is God’s upholding power, or better, God as he upholds. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s day 10 says “as it were by his hand.” By that word hand the Heidelberg Catechism is describing God’s providence. So we may think of the upholding power of providence this way: just as a hand holds an object up, so does the almighty and everywhere present power of God keep all things in their existence.
Providence is also God’s governing power. That government is to be conceived as God’s controlling the entire existence of the creature and of the whole of creation to bring the creature and the whole of creation to the goal he appointed for them in his counsel. He steers and directs all things by his power.
These two, the upholding and governing powers of providence, cannot be separated from God’s eternal counsel of providence. Providence is God’s decree for all things according to which also he upholds and governs them. God’s knows all things that have been, are, and will be, not because he sees in advance, but because he decreed those things to be.
This decree includes the goal of all things. The scripture speaks specifically of God’s purpose in his decree as the glory of his name in Jesus Christ:
Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him (Eph. 1:9–10).
God’s purpose is not then the building of a good, earthly, godly culture, but Christ, and only Christ. In Christ God glorifies himself.
These three aspects of providence may never be separated from one another. God upholds purposefully and God governs what he upholds sovereignly. His providence is no mere aimless power, but also directs all to the goal he appointed for them, whether for the individual creature or for the whole cosmos.
With these three aspects of providence we see the richness of God’s upholding power.
It is not static. His upholding includes his government so that there is constant change in creation as creation is moved toward its appointed goal. To be creature is to change. Only God stays the same in his being and in all his perfections.
The evolutionist presents change in creation as a great problem for God’s providence. It is not a problem for the believer who knows the power of God. He can change the world very rapidly. In about a year and ten days he destroyed the world that then was and brought forth the world that now is and that is reserved for a fiery judgment. There can be change in animals and in the environment. There is development even at the microscopic level. There are cycles, rhythms, and flux in creation. Of some these the Bible speaks explicitly—the water cycle, the cycle of the seasons, the planting and harvesting cycle, and many more. None of that is excluded from the providence of God. Change is part of God’s providence as he hurries all things to his goal.
We can describe what providence is more precisely as God’s word. The Reformed were in the habit of speaking of providence as continual creation. That term is not a good one. It does not distinguish properly between the works of creation and providence. It is also imprecise and prone to abuse. The better Reformed theologians who used it recognized this and virtually qualified it out of existence.
Though we reject the term, however, we should do justice to the reason that the Reformed spoke of continual creation. They used that term originally to emphasize the closeness of the work of creation and providence. They are inseparable. Furthermore, the Reformed used that term to teach that the power of creation, the word of God, is the very same power of providence, the continual utterance of that word. In the beginning God spoke the creatures into their existence by his word so that by the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
That word is the essence of each creature, and continually speaking that word, God upholds that creature in its being and moves that creature toward its goal. By his word God made all things and by the continual utterance of that word all things continue to exist and are brought to their appointed goal.
This is the teaching of Hebrews 1:2–3, where speaking of the word made flesh, the Bible says “and upholding all things by the word of his power.” God’s providence is the word upholding all things by the word of his power where word means the continual utterance of his mouth. This is the teaching of Psalm 29 regarding certain particular things in the world that all are done by his voice:
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters…The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars… The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire… The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve.
It is by his voice that Jehovah works in creation. If that applies to these things, some of them grand, such as the dividing of the flames, and some of them mundane, such as the calving of the hinds, then that is how he works in all his creation.
This view of providence honors Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, by whom and for whom God made all things. The wind and waves that were told to be still heard a familiar voice, and it is not strange that Jesus Christ now controls and directs all things.
This view of providence also makes it personal. Providence is not a bare fate, an extension or effulgence of God, or an impersonal power of God’s. Providence is God himself as he upholds and governs all things. Providence is God’s own intimate and minute care of the world in which he upholds that world and directs that world and all that is in it according to his eternal purpose in Jesus Christ to glorify that world in a new heaven and new earth for the manifestation of his glory and wonderful grace. The church never intended by this to teach that God is a father to all, or that he has a love toward all, but rather that the world is his, brought forth by his act of creation as he destined that world to be the eternal home of his people in Jesus Christ for his glory. For their sakes God cares for his world and directs it to that goal. To speak in a dim analogy: God’s care of the world is like a man who owns a vast estate of thousands of acres, worked by many hired men. He provides for all their tools and wages, and the will of the landlord is done by all, but everything serves his household and family and he does everything on the estate for them.
The creation as God made it in the beginning was not the purpose of God, and God never intended that Adam should continue, but that Jesus Christ be revealed and the creation perfected in him. That world as it is destined to be perfected in Christ Jesus is the object of his love, and for it he personally cares.
Of this care of his creation the Bible speaks vividly. He gathers the clouds and rides on them like a chariot, sends out his lightning, brings night and day, and covers the ground with water and snow. He gives the peacock his beauty, the ostrich her speed and folly, the horse his strength, and the eagle her home in the rocks. He hunts prey for the lions, provides for the beasts, feeds the ravens, commands the eagle to fly, and knows where the wild goats calve and helps them in their labor.
He clothes the lilies so that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them.
He numbers of the hairs of our head, and not one falls to the ground except by his will.
He controls the devil, raises up kings and hews them down again, stops the mouths of lions, overthrows plots against his people, and has the heathen and their counsels against him in derision.
In all this he has a paternal, particular, and gracious care toward his people, to whom he gives his daily bread and for whom in this life he averts all evil or turns it to their profit.
In short, God’s providence extends over all. To that we turn next time.
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