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Survey of the Westminster Confession of Faith
Of Providence (Part 2)
V. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.
Those who emphasize the doctrine of God’s sovereignty are often asked to explain why, if God is sovereign, and if God is a good God, certain unpleasant and even terrifying things happen to people. This question is frequently asked in regard to some difficult circumstance involving a Christian. What is really being asked is this: If God controls the circumstances of our lives, why does He allow “bad” things to happen to us? Why doesn’t He simply “protect” us from life’s harsh realities?
Before explaining how tribulation and God’s providence are related, the Confession first admits the obvious: God’s people do, in fact, experience much hardship in this life. Why, then, does God allow it? The Confession provides as thorough an answer as we can compile given the Biblical data.
God may allow His children to face temptation or suffer the consequences of their own sinful actions in order to chastise them for sin. The idea here is that wicked behavior is bound to produce unpleasant, even painful, results. God sometimes allows us to go our own way, but then He also allows us to face the consequences of going our own way as a type of chastisement for disobedience. His goal also may be to reveal to us the degree of our corruption, either in a general way or in a particular area, so that we depend less on the leading of our hearts and more on His perfect word in the future.
The goal of such activity on God’s part is to purify us and make us more aware of our complete dependence upon Him. It is for our good that His providential control includes times when we sin, but are then made to bear the consequences of our sin. We will mature during such episodes.
The Confession also recognizes that not every difficult circumstance in the life of the believer is a result of his own sin and God’s accompanying desire that he face the outcome of his own sin. Therefore, the writers added the phrase “and for sundry other just and holy ends.” Our suffering within God’s providence cannot always be attributed to some sin we have committed. There are other reasons, other purposes, behind some of the struggles Christians face. The other “just and holy ends” may never be known by us, but we can be assured that they are right and good and will bring glory to God.
One passage cited by the Confession is 2 Cor. 12:7-9. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is well-known. The apostle explains the “benefits” of this problem that God in His providence deemed necessary.
VI. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.
God’s providence also touches unbelievers. In their case, God may withhold His grace so that they remain in their sinful state. God may show some mercy, but then withdraw that mercy as His will dictates. Note that the object of God’s providential workings in the lives of unbelievers has a different goal. Whereas God’s goal in the lives of His children is always their ultimate good; His purpose with the wicked is judgment.
Interestingly, the Confession says that those circumstances that “soften” some, harden the wicked. The difference is, of course, God’s saving grace. A believer can experience a trial and it brings him closer to God while an unbeliever in similar circumstances is driven further from God. Even our responses to God’s activity in our lives, therefore, is a matter of His grace at work in us.
The Bible is clear that spiritual enlightenment is given by God. Without His intervention, no sinner can come to know Him, and the forgiveness of sin found in Christ (cf. Eph. 2:8-10). The Confession cites 2 Thess. 2:10-12 where Paul says that God undertakes to keep the wicked in their fallen state. This is a type of judgment of God for sin.
VII. As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of His Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof.
We have been thinking of providence in relation to the life of the individual. The Confession points out that God’s providence has special application to the experience of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is the means through which Christ rules. He, as our Head, commands us and we carry out His instructions. Therefore, God’s providence protects this institution so that it can fulfill its purpose. What God’s providence does for us individually, it does for the Church collectively.