DIVINE PROVIDENCE – II
by Bob Wheeler
We have seen that God controls the forces of nature and can even override them as necessary. But what about the actions of human beings? Can God control those as well? Are we not at the mercy of others, stronger and more powerful than ourselves? Can God answer prayer in the face of human opposition?
Some imagine that man has a free will, and therefore his actions cannot be determined by God – that if God can control what human beings do, that would, in effect, make God the author of sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, makes the assertion that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established’ (Westminster Confession, III.i). The question is, how does divine sovereignty relate to human responsibility? This is, in fact, one of the most difficult of all theological questions.
The Bible makes it clear that God “works all thins according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11; NKJV), and that includes His ability to control the human will: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). “A man’s heart plans his way, / But the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9) God can control what a powerful human ruler does: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, / Like the rivers of water; / He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1). And ultimately God controls the destinies of entire nations. Hanna could exclaim:
“The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up.
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.”
(I Sam. 2:6-8)
Even the worst crime in human history was done according to God’s plan: Peter could tell a Jewish audience, “Him [i.e., Christ], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death . . .” (Acts 2:23). And yet God is not the author of sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:13,14). But how can how can both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility both be true at the same time?
A classic illustration is Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. God told Moses at the very start “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:3). As the narrative unfolds God sends the plagues on Egypt to demonstrate His power, and yet it was not until after the last one that Pharaoh finally consented to let Israel go. What happened in the meantime? In five places the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10); and in three places it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34). So which was it – God or Pharaoh?
The answer is found in the verse from James just quoted: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and entice” (Jas. 1:14). “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Thus the immediate cause of sin is our own depraved human nature: we sin because we want to sin.
But how, then, could God be said to have “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart? The answer is found in Romans chapter 1 where, describing human depravity, it says in no less than three different places that God “gave them up” (vv. 24, 26, 28) – gave them up “to uncleanness, to the lusts of their hearts” (v. 24), “to the passions” (v. 26); “to a debased mind” (v. 28). In other words, the impulse to commit sin lies within human nature; God acts as a restraining influence. God will then sometimes removes the restraint, allowing human depravity to take its natural course, knowing full well what we will do as a result. The sin is ours, but the outcome is part of God’s plan. And God can use the evil actions of human beings to bring about the ultimate good. Joseph, in the Old Testament, could tell his guilt ridden brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). And, of course, the ultimate example of this is the crucifixion of Christ himself – the most horrible crime ever perpetrated by mortal man, and yet all a part of God’s eternal plan.
God, then, is in control of human events, and as a result He controls what happens to us personally. This, then, should affect how we respond to the various trials and difficulties that come our way. We need to look to God for the solution to our problems, and put our trust in Him
“For exaltation comes neither from the east
Nor from the west for from the south.
But God is the Judge:
He puts down one,
And exalts another.”
Or, as Hannah put it in her prayer, “For by strength no man shall prevail” (I Sam. 2:9b). That consideration should cure us of the disease of self-sufficiency, and make us realize how truly dependent we are upon God. But it should also give us confidence and strengthen our faith – no matter how great the obstacle before us, God is even greater. If it is His will, it will be accomplished!
And finally, it should cause us to give God all the glory. Everything we have we owe to Him – it came to us through His providence. “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generation, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).