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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Last time we discussed miracles, which represent an extraordinary example of God’s governing his creation. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to briefly discuss God’s eternal decrees. We already examined God’s decretive will, which is simply whatever actually happens, in Sessions 84, 85 and 86. But I want to take some time to relate God’s decrees to his providence. In their book A Puritan Theology, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones note that “Providence is not the same as God’s predestination or eternal decree, but rather is the execution of that decree within the time and space of His creation.”[1]

Marc Roby: Perhaps we could summarize what we have said before by saying that God’s eternal decrees are, essentially, his overall plan for creation, while God’s providence is his preserving and governing his creation to bring that plan to fruition.

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem says much the same thing in his Systematic Theology. He writes that God’s “providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago.”[2] When we first started discussing God’s providence we noted, in Session 89, that it is purposeful. He governs his creation for the purpose of bringing about the end he decreed from before the beginning. In Isaiah 46:9-10 God tells us, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”[3]

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God …” and then it goes on to tell us his purposes for creation, to tell us about the fall and how we may be saved. And, along the way, it tells us about our proper role as God’s image bearers in creation and gives us numerous examples of his providential governing of his creation to instruct and encourage us.

Marc Roby: And it is very important to emphasize that while God has decreed all things from before the beginning, he also made man with a degree of free will. Our actions have real consequences for ourselves and for others and we make real decisions for which we will be justly held accountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is a critically important point. Many people throughout history have either wrongly rejected the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees because they think it eliminates man’s freedom, or they have wrongly concluded that how they live and what they do doesn’t matter. But the proper biblical understanding is that God has ordained both the end to be achieved and the means to achieve that end. And he has chosen to use us as secondary agents with a degree of freedom and responsibility to accomplish his purposes.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s eternal decrees and his providence do not negate human responsibility.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. I think Wayne Grudem is right to deal with this subject in the chapter on God’s providence in his Systematic Theology.[4] God has ordained all things that happen, but he has also ordained the means to achieve those ends, and most importantly from our perspective, he has created us as moral creatures with a degree of free will who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say that we have a “degree” of free will, you are emphasizing the fact that our freedom is constrained, right?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We talked about this in Session 84. We do not have absolute freedom in the sense of being able to make any and every decision. That is incompatible with making intelligent, as opposed to random, choices. My freedom is constrained by my nature because what I decide to do in any given situation depends on what I believe to be right or wrong and by what things I enjoy or don’t enjoy, or perceive to be worthwhile or not and so on.

Marc Roby: Which means, as we pointed out before, that since God knows us perfectly, he can predict exactly what we will do in any and every situation and can, therefore, ordain whatever comes to pass without negating our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, it means that what I do really does matter. Since God chooses to work through secondary agents, I may very well be his ordained means for bringing about a particular result. The fact that he ordained the result does not in any way detract from my free agency in producing it. Grudem gives a great biblical illustration that our choices matter even though God has ordained the outcome.

Marc Roby: What example is that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s Paul’s shipwreck while he is being taken to Rome. In Acts 27:24 Paul tells the men on the ship that God had revealed to him that they would all survive, but that the ship would be lost. Then, in Verse 30 we read that some of the sailors lowered a life boat and were preparing to abandon the ship. In response, Paul tells the centurion and soldiers in charge, in Verse 31, that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” As a result, the soldiers cut the ropes attached to the life boat and let it float away.

The relevant thing for our present purposes is that even though God had revealed to Paul that everyone would survive, he told the centurion that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Note the word “cannot” – it expresses an impossibility. The sailors had to stay with the ship or what God had revealed to Paul could not come true.

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting point.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem draws the right conclusion from it. He wrote, “Wisely, Paul knew that God’s providential oversight and even his clear prediction of what would happen still involved the use of ordinary human means to bring it about. He was even so bold to say that those means were necessary … We would do well to imitate his example, combining complete trust in God’s providence with a realization that the use of ordinary means is necessary for things to come out the way God has planned them to come out.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very clear example of the fact that what we do really does matter. And it isn’t just our actions that matter, our prayers do as well. In James 5:16 we are told that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Dr. Spencer: Prayer is definitely one of the means that God has ordained to accomplish his purposes. It isn’t magic, but it definitely matters. God knows what we are going to pray before we do, so it isn’t that we are telling him something he doesn’t know, or making a request he isn’t already aware of, but it is still true that it is a means he has ordained.

Marc Roby: Of course there are other purposes for prayer as well. For example, it helps us to stay humble and to be consciously aware of our dependence on God.

Dr. Spencer: Sure, prayer does serve other purposes as well, and we can’t presume upon the answer, it may be “no”. But, nevertheless, prayer does have real efficacy in bringing about events. It is important to note however that we shouldn’t just pray if there are things we have it within our power to do to help a situation. Consider Joshua as an example.

Marc Roby: You mean the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led the Israelites into the Promised Land, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s the one. When the Israelites had first entered the Promised Land and were preparing to attack Jericho, God told them, as we read in Joshua 6:18-19, that after he caused the walls to come down and the people went up into the city, they must not[6] take any of the silver, gold, or articles of bronze and iron for themselves. These were to be considered sacred to the Lord and if anyone took any of them, they would make the Israelites liable to destruction.

Marc Roby: Which is exactly what happened. After conquering Jericho, the Israelites attempted to conquer Ai and were routed by the men of Ai.

Dr. Spencer: And because of that rout Joshua and the people were afraid and we’re told in Joshua 7:6-9 how he responded. He “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?’”

Marc Roby: God’s response was probably not what Joshua was expecting.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that it wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He was pouring out his heart in prayer, but he wasn’t doing what he should be doing. God had told them that if they took some of the forbidden items the Israelites would become liable to destruction, so Joshua should have been investigating to see who had violated God’s prohibition. Even heartfelt prayer is never to be used as an alternative to action when we have the means at our disposal to do God’s will.

Marc Roby: And so we read, in Joshua 7:10-12, that “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies’”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, God was not pleased with Joshua’s prayer. He told him to gather the people and find out who had stolen some of the items, which they did. It turned out that a man by the name of Achan had stolen a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. Only after the Israelites obeyed God and destroyed Achan, his family and all he owned, did God bless them again.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that episode brought a greater fear of God to the people and made them far more careful to obey his commands.

Dr. Spencer: And, in keeping with our current topic, I’m also sure that Joshua learned that he needed to do those things that were in his power and in God’s will rather than just crying out to God for help. There is nothing wrong with prayer, and Joshua certainly could and should have prayed for God to give him wisdom and to show him why the Israelites were defeated, but it is false piety to expend great energy crying out to God when he has already told us what he wants us to do.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the quote you read at the end of Session 91 from A Puritan Theology, it said that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a great quote. We want to avoid both pride and presumption. We should seek God and pray, but we must also do the work he has given us to do using the means he has provided. Grudem points out three additional points of application for the doctrine of God’s providence.[8] He first notes that God’s providence should cause us to not be afraid, but to trust in God. If we have done what it is within our power to do, it is right for us to not worry about the outcome, but to leave it up to God.

Marc Roby: We have a great example of that in 2 Samuel 10:12 where the commander of King David’s armies faced a difficult situation and he said, “Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful example of this principle.

The second application Grudem makes from this doctrine is that we should be thankful for every good thing that happens to us. They are all under the control of our great sovereign Lord and King. In Psalm 103:2-5 we read, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Marc Roby: God is wonderful to his people. And I would add that even when bad things happen to us, we can give thanks to God for his promise in Romans 8:28 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, good point. Grudem’s third point of application is that there is no such thing as luck or chance, a point we already made in Sessions 88 and 89. We can be confident that God is in charge, which means that all we have to focus on is walking in obedience and doing what he calls us to do. We can leave the results up to him.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Are we done with discussing God’s providence?

Dr. Spencer: We are. And we are also finished with theology proper. We certainly may come back to it, but I think we’ve covered all we need to for now.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that we are going through the six loci of classical reformed theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything. So, I assume we are going to move on then to examine biblical anthropology next time?

Dr. Spencer: That is the plan.

Marc Roby: Very good. Then I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d love to hear from you.

[1] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 163

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 332

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Grudem, op. cit., See Section E. starting on pg. 333

[5] Grudem, op. cit. pg. 336

[6] The word “not” was left out of the original transcript by error. Corrected on 4/19/19

[7] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, op. cit., pg. 170

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 337

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. We have discussed his preserving and governing of his creation to bring about his purposes. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to take a brief look at miracles. They belong in a discussion about God’s providence because they are related to it as John Frame points out. He wrote that “God’s ‘extraordinary’ actions are called miracles, and his ‘ordinary’ actions are called providence – although … those are relative terms.”[1]

Marc Roby: Miracles can be a controversial topic among Christians today.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s part of why I want to address it. It is an unnecessarily controversial topic. My purpose is to cause us all to think through our views on this topic biblically. We all, as modern people living in a western culture, tend to have serious prejudices with regard to the topic. So, the first thing we need to do is to define what a miracle is. And the minute we start to do that carefully we will begin to see the problem caused by our prejudices.

Marc Roby: Well, if I open my Webster’s dictionary, I find the following definition for a miracle: it is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a pretty common sort of definition, and we can immediately see that there is a problem from a biblical perspective because it talks about an event “manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” But, as we have been laboring to show in the past few sessions, God sustains and governs all of his creation, all of the time, to achieve his purposes, and this certainly includes all human affairs. From a proper biblical perspective, God intervenes in every event in this world, not just extremely rare events.

Marc Roby: I see your point, but it also seems reasonable to say that some events would manifest God’s action more cleary than others would, and the definition does speak of “an extraordinary event”, so we could assume that they had such events in mind.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and I’m not saying this is a terrible definition, but it implicitly implies that God very rarely, if ever, intervenes in his creation. Even as Christians our worldviews are affected by the culture around us and we need to be careful to take note of that effect and to consciously cast off the influence when it is contrary to the Bible. If we think that there any events over which God is not in control, then our thinking is, to that extent, unbiblical. Remember Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” [3]

John Frame does an excellent job discussing the subject of miracles in his book The Doctrine of God, and he mentions the “hermeneutical circle”[4].

Marc Roby: I don’t recall us talking about that when we discussed hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that’s because we didn’t use that terminology. But the idea is very simple. If we want to develop a proper understanding of something, in this case miracles, we first try to clearly state what we think is true and then we look through the Bible to see whether or not what we have said is consistent with the whole teaching of the Bible. If it isn’t, we revise our statement and then go back through the Bible again. By repeatedly applying this procedure, which is the hermeneutical circle, we should come closer and closer to a proper biblical understanding.

Marc Roby: That’s a reasonable approach. So, how does he apply that to defining a miracle?

Dr. Spencer: He first points out that biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have words that correspond directly to our English word miracle. And, further, there are passages that clearly speak about miracles without using any of the nouns used in the Bible to describe miracles. Therefore, a word study is not a very good way to look for a biblical definition.

As just one quick example, let’s examine a passage that you might think is a clear-cut example of Jesus speaking about miracles. In John 14:11 we read that Jesus told the people, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” But, in the Greek, what Jesus said could more literally be translated as it is in the English Standard Version (ESV), which says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

Marc Roby: And the Greek word Jesus used there, which the ESV has translated as works, that Greek word is ἔργον (ergon), from which we get our word ergonomic, which is the science of making things so that people can work efficiently and safely. So Jesus may not even have been referring exclusively to miracles.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And the other Greek words translated in our NIV Bibles as miracle are words whose root meanings are power (δύναμις), sign (σημεῖον), or wonder (τέρας). Certainly, miracles in the Bible are used as signs to point to God’s power and to authenticate his prophets, his Messiah, and his apostles.

But, as I said, Frame argues that a word study isn’t a great place to start. Instead, he proposes a definition and then examines several popular modifications or improvements that might be suggested. His initial proposal for a biblical definition is that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.”[5]

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable. What modifications to this definition does he go on to consider?

Dr. Spencer: The first is the common idea that a miracle is, to quote the philosopher David Hume, “a violation of the laws of nature.” Frame first points out that there is a problem with using the word “violation” here. God created this universe and, as Creator, he has authority to do with it what he pleases. It is, therefore, impossible for him to violate the very laws that he himself established. If he created them, he certainly has authority to suspend, alter or do away with them as he pleases. But, even if you choose a different word, the idea that a miracle must somehow be an exception to natural law is a common idea.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is certainly one of the common ways you hear people speak about miracles, if they speak about them at all.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but Frame rejects this modification to the definition for four reasons. First, the Bible itself never indicates that this is what constitutes a miracle.

Marc Roby: That would seem to be sufficient reason to reject the idea all by itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should be. The second reason he gives for rejecting this modification to the definition is that there are no natural laws that operate independently of God. He writes that “The idea of a mechanism between God and creation that administers the universe in the absence of divine intervention is a deistic, rather than a biblical, model.”[6] When he says this, he is certainly not denying the existence of natural laws that we can discover and put to use in all sorts of ways. Science, as we have noted before, is enabled by the fact that God upholds the laws he has created, but the key idea here is that God upholds those laws. They are not independent of him.

Marc Roby: We spoke last time about the Bible’s clear teaching that God is in control of the rain.

Dr. Spencer: And Frame uses the same example, but there are obviously many more. Now his third reason for rejecting this idea is that no one knows all of the physical laws God has established perfectly and, therefore, no could identify for certain what is, or is not, a miracle.

Marc Roby: And if we couldn’t clearly identify an event as a miracle, that would prohibit it from being a useful sign, which the Bible itself tells us is one purpose of miracles as we saw a few moments ago from John 14:11.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, if we can’t identify when something is a miracle, it can’t function as a sign at all. In fact, I think this reason is again, by itself, a compelling reason to not add that restriction to the definition. Just suppose, for example, that we someday discover how to control gravity and we can make something akin to the hoverboard in the Back to the Future movies. Would that in any way negate the impact that Jesus’ walking on the water had on his disciples?

Marc Roby: I don’t think so.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I. We can do things now that would almost certainly have been considered miraculous by virtually anyone at the time of Christ. Just consider jet airplanes, cell phones, and GPS systems as a few examples.

Marc Roby: It is impossible to imagine how someone of that time would have reacted, but I’m quite sure that you’re right in saying that most would have called them miraculous.

Dr. Spencer: The idea is fertile ground for science fiction novels and movies, but clearly something does not have to suspend the normal laws of our universe to be a useful sign. Now getting back to the topic at hand, Frame’s fourth reason for rejecting this addition is also compelling. It is that the Bible itself gives us examples of events that have clear “natural” explanations but are, nonetheless, miraculous in any meaningful sense of that term.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14:21 we read, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” There is no suspension of natural law in having a strong east wind, but it is certainly miraculous that it came exactly when Moses stretched out his hand.

Marc Roby: And it may very well have also required a suspension of the normal laws of physics for it to heap up the water on both sides of a path the way it did.

Dr. Spencer: That may be true, the strong east wind may not have been a sufficient cause. But there is at least some possibility that given a very specific geographic situation it was. So, I think Frame’s four reasons are more than adequate for rejecting this modification to the definition of a miracle, we should not in any way reference natural laws in our definition.

Marc Roby: What other possible modifications does Frame consider?

Dr. Spencer: He rejects the suggestion made by some that a miracle involves the immediate activity of God. And the word immediate here is not being used in the temporal sense, in other words it does not mean activity that occurs right away. Rather, it refers to activity that is not mediated by some secondary agent.

Marc Roby: That again is a very common idea about what constitutes a miracle.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I think Frame’s reasons for rejecting it are sound. He points out that the Bible itself doesn’t distinguish between events in which God acts immediately or mediately. It is fairly obvious, as he notes, that the original creation out of nothing must have been an immediate act of God. After all, who or what could have mediated when nothing but God existed? He also posits, and I would certainly agree, that regeneration, or new birth, must be an immediate work of God. But what other events can we say that about with any degree of certainty?

Marc Roby: Well, I would say the virginal conception of Jesus, but I wouldn’t want to try and give an exhaustive list such events.

Dr. Spencer: Nor would I. Therefore, Frame points out two problems here. First, he writes, “If miracles are immediate acts of God, how could anybody ever identify an event as a miracle?”[7] And secondly, as we have been discussing for several weeks, God upholds all of creation, so in a sense, absolutely nothing occurs without his immediate action, at least in the sense of upholding the creation. As Paul said in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is, again, a compelling argument. Does Frame consider any other additions to the definition?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he considers one more. It is that a miracle must somehow be used to attest to the authenticity of a prophet of God.

Marc Roby: That idea is certainly present in Scripture. I think of the story about Jesus telling a paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Some of the people in the crowd starting thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God has authority to forgive sins, and then we read in Matthew 9:5-6 that Jesus said to them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’” So, Jesus himself used that miracle to attest to his authority.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, and Frame notes that this idea is biblical, but the problem is that not every miracle in the Bible has that purpose, so it shouldn’t be part of the definition of a miracle. Frame notes, for example, that the flood at the time of Noah was intended for judgment, not as a validation of Noah as a prophet.

Marc Roby: Very well, so what is Frame’s final conclusion?

Dr. Spencer: First recall that his preliminary definition was that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.” And he rejected any of the additions that would normally be proposed. Therefore, there is a close link between miracles and providence, which is why we are considering miracles now. God rules as the sovereign Lord of the universe in both the miraculous and the ordinary. But Frame thinks, and I certainly agree, that it is still useful to distinguish between the two. Therefore, he slightly amends his preliminary definition to explicitly mention God’s relationship to creation as the covenant Lord and concludes by saying that “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant lordship.”[8]

Marc Roby: That strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and biblical definition to work with.

Dr. Spencer: And I again agree. But Frame then addresses an issue that is controversial in the modern church. And that is the question of whether or not miracles occur today.

Marc Roby: There are many modern Christians who would say that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age.

Dr. Spencer: Many do say that. And before we go any further, I want to be clear that this is not in any way an essential of the faith. Born-again believers can disagree on this issue. But, with that said, let’s very briefly consider the question.

And let me begin by saying that there are a couple of non-negotiable items. One of them is that the canon of Scripture is closed. Whatever we may believe concerning God’s revealing things to individual Christians, there is no new revelation on a par with Scripture. It alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian.

Marc Roby: And so, for example, the Roman Catholic idea that the traditions of the church are on the same level as Scripture is wrong.

Dr. Spencer: And so are the Mormons when they claim that God gave new revelation to Joseph Smith. The entire Old Testament pointed forward in a myriad of ways to the coming Messiah, who was promised to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall.[9] The New Testament tells us about the coming of this Messiah, what he taught personally and through his apostles, and it also tells us about the early history of the church. After that, God’s infallible revelation to man ended.

Marc Roby: And so, at a bare minimum, any guidance anyone thinks he receives from the Holy Spirit must be consistent with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are told in 1 John 4:1 that we are to test the spirits.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The Holy Spirit is the unchangeable God. If someone thinks that God has revealed something to him that contradicts God’s word given to us in the Bible, he is wrong.

The other non-negotiable item is that no one is given authority to perform miracles at will. There are many charlatans out there who will pretend that they can heal you of your diseases or provide some desired benefit on demand. But that is a lie.

Marc Roby: Alright, I agree with those two non-negotiable items. What then do you want to say about miracles occurring now?

Dr. Spencer: I think that God is clearly capable of doing miracles at any time, that there is no clear teaching in the Bible to indicate that he stopped performing miracles at the end of the apostolic age. There is also a lot of very credible evidence for God performing miracles of healing and so on in our day and age. For one thing, I would say that every time a person is born again, that is a miracle.

Marc Roby: And praise God for that miracle.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Without it, no one would be saved. But, in addition, God still provides for the needs of his church. And those needs did not end with the death of the last apostle. God calls us to approach his throne of grace with confidence. We are to pray for our needs and the needs of others. And prayer works. Including, sometimes, miraculous healing or miraculous provisions.

God is not a vending machine and we don’t have the power to cause him to do whatever we want, his answer to a prayer for healing may be “no”, as it was, for example, for the apostle Paul.[10] But God does still perform miracles for his people, although I agree with Frame that they are rare today. We are told that we shouldn’t look for them as confirmation of our faith because we have a sufficient basis for our faith without them. But they occur even today. We have a mighty God.

Marc Roby: I think that is a wonderful note to end on for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[2] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Comp., 1979

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Frame, op. cit., pg. 245

[5] Ibid, pp 245-246

[6] Ibid, pg. 250

[7] Ibid, pg. 253

[8] Ibid, pg. 258

[9] See Genesis 3:15

[10] See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. The answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” We finished examining God’s preservation of his creation last time and will discuss his government today. Dr. Spencer, how would like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin with a definition. Wayne Grudem makes the following statement about God’s government: “God has a purpose in all that he does in the world and he providentially governs or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes.”[1] In other words, God has a plan for creation and he controls all things in accordance with that plan.

We read in Ephesians 1:9-12 that God the Father, “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” [2]

Marc Roby: That is a magnificent passage that not only speaks about God’s plan, and that everything is done in conformity with the purpose of his will, but also that his purpose is the praise of his glory.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I quoted all the way through Verse 12, I wanted to show that God’s plan for creation has an ultimate purpose and, as we have discussed before, that purpose is the manifestation of his own glory. John Frame makes an interesting point in his book The Doctrine of God, he points out that our English word “govern” comes from a Latin word, which means “to steer a ship”.[3] To govern properly one has to have an objective in mind, a place or situation to which you want to lead.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many of the troubles in our day and age come about because of radically different views about the direction in which our government is leading the country.

Dr. Spencer: Well, you’re certainly right about that, and the same problem exists in many other countries as well. But when it comes to the ultimate goal of creation, there is no debate. God does not govern this universe in a democratic way. God rules as the absolute sovereign over all creation and there is no debate, compromise or negotiation allowed or possible.

Marc Roby: And we should praise God that there isn’t, since he alone is perfect and his plan is certainly better than anything men could come up with. But the fact that God rules with absolute power is something most human beings really don’t like.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, no one likes it unless God has graciously changed his heart. In our natural state we all think we could do a better job of ruling the universe, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. But only God is perfectly good and omniscient. He knows the best possible goal and the best possible means of attaining that goal. We just need to trust and obey as the children’s song says.

Marc Roby: Which sounds very simple, but is, in fact, very difficult at times. Especially when we experience the pain and suffering brought about by the presence of evil.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it can be hard. And the Bible deals with this very honestly. We see many places where people struggle to understand why God allows some things to happen. A very common theme is for people to wonder why God allows the wicked to prosper, rather than judging them immediately. For example, in Job21:7, we read Job asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” And in Chapter 24, Verse 1 he asks, “Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?”

Marc Roby: And we see similar questions being asked many times in the psalms. I think, for example, of Psalm 10, which begins with the psalmist crying out, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) And then goes on to describe the pride and success of the wicked.

Dr. Spencer: But it ends with the psalmist declaring that God does, in fact, see and know what is going on and will call the wicked to account. In Verse 16 the psalmist says, “The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.” The trouble from our perspective is, of course, that we don’t always see those who oppose God being punished and those who trust him being rewarded. We have to trust God’s promises and realize that this life is not all there is.

Marc Roby: In other words, we need to live by faith as we are told in Habakkuk 2:4, which is quoted several times in the New Testament.[4]

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what we need to do. When we are troubled, we need to preach a sermon to our own soul based on God’s past works and his promises. In Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist preaches to his own soul three times, saying, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5-6, 11, 43:5) It is only when we take time to consider who God is, what he has done and what he has promised that we can calm the doubts and fears that all of us have at one time or another.

Marc Roby: King David wrote, in Psalm 62:1-2, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.” David knew that God was the one in charge and that his only true hope and comfort were to be found in God and his perfect providence. The fact that God governs every detail of his creation should give us great encouragement as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should. And thank you for bringing us back to our topic of God’s government. At the beginning of this session you read the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which states that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

We can combine that answer with the point we have made about God having a purpose for creation and we can say that God governs all of his creatures and all of their actions with holiness, wisdom and power to achieve his perfect purpose.

Marc Roby: Which, as you noted, is the manifestation of his glory. I can’t wait to get to heaven and live under that perfect government.

Dr. Spencer: Nor can I. No earthly government can even come close, although they are all under God’s government. The theologian Charles Hodge notes that “The idea that God would create this vast universe teeming with life in all its forms, and exercise no control over it, to secure it from destruction or from working out nothing but evil, is utterly inconsistent with the nature of God. And to suppose that anything is too great to be comprehended in his control, or anything so minute as to escape his notice; or that the infinitude of particulars can distract his attention, is to forget that God is infinite.”[5]

Marc Roby: He makes a great point. To believe that there is a God who created this universe and then simply backs off and watches to see what will happen is unreasonable. If there is a being powerful enough to create this universe, and who cares enough to do so, it is inconceivable that he wouldn’t care what happens in it or be able to control all details to bring about his desired end.

Dr. Spencer: And if someone can conceive of such a monstrous God, it is not the God who has revealed himself in the Bible, it is a figment of the imagination.

Marc Roby: Such a God would be a monstrosity. He would be like some earthy fathers who produce children but then abandon them.

Dr. Spencer: I’m glad that you mentioned fathers because that provides a perfect segue to what I want to look at next. God is our heavenly Father and he cares for his children. It necessarily follows that he will govern his creation to achieve his desired end. The Heidelberg Catechism does a great job of describing this. Question 27 asks “What do you mean by the providence of God?” and the answer is, “The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven, earth, and all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance but be His fatherly hand.”[6]

Marc Roby: I like that answer a lot. God upholds, or preserves, his creation as we discussed last time and he also governs his creation as a perfect, loving father. Even the trials and difficulties of life are designed for the good of God’s children. We read in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important verse. We’ve used it a number of times, and I would strongly suggest that all Christians memorize it. We don’t always see how things will work together for our good, but we trust God that they will. He governs every detail of life. The Heidelberg Catechism answer mentions rain and drought as one example.

Now, our modern society ignores the fact that God is in control of these things. He uses secondary agents of course, so we can develop, for example, an understanding of the physical laws and processes that govern our weather and we can, within limits, predict the weather, but we can’t divorce the blessing of rain or the curse of drought from God’s overall control.

In Deuteronomy Chapter 28 God outlines the blessings he provides for obedience and the curses that come for disobedience. The chapter begins, in Verse 1, by saying, “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today”, and then he lists a number of blessings we will receive as a result. In Verse 12 we are told that one of the blessings is, “The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.”

Marc Roby: And, on the other hand, in Verse 15 we are told, “However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you”, and then in Verse 24 we again read about rain, it says one curse is that “The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.”

Dr. Spencer: That is frightening, and it is meant to be. God will not long bless or even put up with the nation that continues to defy his law and blaspheme his name. Which is an aspect of his governing his creation.

Marc Roby: And, of course, God’s government extends far beyond the weather. The Catechism also mentions health and sickness, which immediately makes me think of the church in Corinth, where the apostle Paul warned them about their improper use of the Lord’s supper and told them, in 1 Corinthians 11:30, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great example. And falling asleep is, of course, a euphemism for death. Paul was telling them that God was judging them with weakness, sickness and death because they were not being careful in their worship.

Marc Roby: And this is in the New Testament! Many professing Christians seem to have the mistaken idea that God somehow mellowed out between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament God killed Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, with fire for their improper worship, and we see that he does the same thing in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. God does not change and his purpose does not change. We do live in a different administration, or you could say dispensation, of God’s kingdom now, but his requirement for holiness and propriety in worship is the same.

Marc Roby: I’d be careful with using that word dispensation.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. We certainly do not mean to lend any support to the view commonly called dispensationalism, which includes the idea that people are saved in different ways in the different dispensations; that idea is completely unbiblical. But there is a proper use of the term. God’s commands are not all of the same type. Some of them are based on God’s nature and cannot be changed. For example, the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. It has always been wrong, and always will be wrong, to murder, commit adultery, steal and so on. But there are other commands of God, sometimes called positive commands, that are, in a sense, arbitrary.[7]

Marc Roby: Like not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. There is no reason to assume that there was anything inherently bad about that tree, the only reason it was wrong to eat of it was that God had commanded Adam not to. Or the dietary laws of the Old Testament, there is nothing inherently wrong about eating pork, or God wouldn’t allow it now. It was again only wrong in the Old Testament time because God had commanded his people not to do so. He has that right. But commands like that are not based on his nature and he is free to change them if he so chooses. We are clearly told in the New Testament that he has abrogated the dietary and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: All of those laws, especially the sacrificial system, served the purpose of pointing forward to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And in God’s government of his creation those laws were cancelled when Christ came. Paul compares this to a minor child coming of age in Galatians Chapters 3 and 4. Let me quote Galatians 3:24-26 from the English Standard Version of the Bible because it translates the passage more literally. It says, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”

Marc Roby: That’s a very interesting passage.

Dr. Spencer: It is, and we may spend some time on it later, but I want to stick to the topic of God’s government for the moment, so all I want to point out from this passage now is that even though God doesn’t change, his means of governing his creation can. This is no different than a parent treating a child differently as the child grows up. The parent hasn’t changed if the child’s bedtime is 8 PM when she is in 3rd grade and then 10 PM when she is in high school.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a good point.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, we would expect there to be changes in the way God governs his creation in order to bring about his perfect plan. Adam and Eve had a very different relationship with God prior to the fall than they did after the fall. And God’s people have a very different relationship to him now than they did before Christ came. And our relationship will again be different when Christ comes again. But through it all, God does not change. He is governing all things so that they reach their appointed end. As Grudem said in the definition we read at the beginning, God “providentially governs or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes.”

Marc Roby: And his purposes are extremely gracious and beneficial for his people.

Dr. Spencer: They most certainly are. But we must remember that blessings come from obedience, and curses from disobedience, even in this dispensation. We are to use the means God has given us, such as our minds, labor and natural resources, to fulfil the commands he has given. But we should never use these means without reference to God’s decrees about how they should be used. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones in their book A Puritan Theology, tell us that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”

Marc Roby: That’s a great quote. And a good place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 331

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 276

[4] See Romans 1:17, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38.

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. 1, pg. 583

[6] G.I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1993, pg. 48

[7] Joel Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 657

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, we made the case in Session 88 that there are no chance events in this universe, God rules over every detail. And in our last Session, 89, we provided some of the Biblical data to support the case, showing that God controls every aspect of his physical creation and of human history. And we closed by noting that God’s providence is personal and moral, that it deals with specific individuals, and that it has a purpose. But all of this raises an obvious question, which we have dealt with before, but I think it bears looking at again in light of God’s providence. The question is this; if God controls every detail, what room is there for human freedom?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as you noted, we have dealt with this question before. In fact, we’ve discussed it twice; once in Session 65 when we examined God’s sovereignty, and once in Session 86 when we discussed God’s will. God’s sovereignty, will and providence are, of course, closely related topics since God brings about his sovereign will through his works of creation and providence.

Marc Roby: Which is again an illustration of God’s simplicity, that all of his attributes work together all of the time.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In any event, the short answer to the question is that God can ordain every detail of human history without having to force us to do anything. In other words, he can control everything and still have us be really and truly free to make decisions for which we can be justly held accountable. The Bible does not tell us exactly how God does this, but as we noted in Session 65, unless we want to claim our own decisions are purely random, there is no logical contradiction.

Marc Roby: I remember that discussion, and as I said at the time, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that my decisions are random, and I don’t think many others would either.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. We may not always make our decisions in the best way possible, in fact, to be honest I should probably say that we often don’t make decisions as carefully as we should. But, nevertheless, we do make decisions for reasons, and those reasons are based on our nature and all of the information available to us at the time, and all of our decisions are perfectly predictable by God since he knows us even better than we know ourselves.

Marc Roby: But, of course, predicting what we will do is not the same thing as controlling what we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, there is obviously a radical conceptual difference between predicting what I will do and controlling what I do. But, in practice, this may be a distinction without a difference. Consider the following facts. First, God knows exactly what I will do in any and every possible situation. Second, although God will never tempt me to sin, he can place thoughts in my mind, he can cause me to remember certain things I have seen or heard or thought about before, and he can directly control any aspect of my circumstances if he chooses to. Given those two facts, it is pretty obvious that he can bring about exactly what he wants to have happen without ever forcing me to do anything against my will.

So, without going into the topic in depth, suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, and they are both clear teachings of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well. We quoted this passage in Session 65, but it is well worth repeating. In Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 the confession says that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful statement and, most importantly, it is completely biblical. But now let’s get back to specifically talking about God’s providence. Theologians have often divided God’s providence into three subtopics:[1] preservation, government and concurrence, which is sometimes called confluence,[2] concursus or cooperation.[3] Others have used only the two topics of preservation and government, in which case concurrence is considered under the topic of government.[4]

Marc Roby: We already covered concurrence, which refers to God’s will and our will both being operative in bringing about events, when we discussed God’s will in Session 86.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why in our present discussion I plan to break providence down into two topics, preservation and government. It is interesting to note that these two topics are those given in the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: That is a great short definition, well worth memorizing.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. So, let’s begin, by looking at God’s preservation in more detail. Wayne Grudem has a good definition of preservation, he writes that “God keeps all created things existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them.”[5]

Marc Roby: And when the apostle Paul was speaking about God to the Athenians at the Areopagus, we read in Acts 17:28 that he said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” [6] Grudem’s definition completely agrees with this statement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The reality is that God upholds all of creation all of the time. Job’s friend Elihu knew this. We read in Job 34:14-15 that he said about God, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” And we could add to Elihu’s statement that the dust itself would disappear if God didn’t uphold it.

Marc Roby: Yes, you’re correct in that addition, a more comprehensive statement is found in Hebrews 1:3, where we are told that Jesus Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, perhaps, the best verse to make this point. But it isn’t the only verse. Another good one is Colossians 1:17, where the apostle said that Jesus Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The Bible clearly teaches that God upholds his creation. The whole of creation is completely dependent on him for its existence. He created it out of nothing, and if he ever ceased willing it to exist, it would disappear in an instant. But Grudem’s definition goes even further than saying that God preserves the universe, it says that “God keeps all created things existing” and here comes the additional part, “and maintaining the properties with which he created them.” In other words, things remain the same because God causes them to remain the same.

Marc Roby: And Grudem supports this contention, in part, by looking at the Greek for the verse I just read from Hebrews 1. Where our translation says that Christ is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” the Greek says, more literally, that he carries all things.

Dr. Spencer: And the Greek word used for carry in that verse is φέρω (pherō̄), which Grudem says, “has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another.”[7] He also notes, as we have before, that the fact that God preserves all things provides the rational basis for science. We tend to take it for granted that the physical laws of our universe and the properties of materials stay the same from day to day, but why should they? We believe there is randomness in the quantum realm, why should there not also be randomness in the very laws that govern our universe?

Marc Roby: I don’t think anyone can give a reason why things should remain the same if they don’t believe in God. The best they can do is to simply argue that we believe they will remain the same in the future because they have in the past.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the best anyone can say. And, of course, we can’t entirely dismiss that reasoning, it is proper as far as it goes. But there is a deeper reason why things remain the same. The verses we’ve quoted, along with others, show that God sustains things. He is carrying all things along to a specific end. We should never forget the point we made at the end of our previous session, that God’s providence is purposeful. He has a purpose for creation and he is guiding all things toward the fulfillment of that purpose.

Marc Roby: We see that in 2 Peter 3:5-7, where the apostle wrote about the great power of God’s word and about the flood in Noah’s time being a foreshadowing of God’s final judgment. Peter wrote that people “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very clear teaching about the power of God and the fact that he has a plan for creation. We recently buried a woman in our church and, as always, the death of someone we know is a reminder to all of us that life is short. But death is not the end of life, it is just the end of life on this earth in this body. As our pastor likes to say, the important question is not whether she died, we will all die sooner or later. The important question is, where did she go?

Marc Roby: That is a sobering thought. God’s providence has an end in view. And we have clear biblical support for the idea that God’s providence includes his preserving, or sustaining, his creation.

Dr. Spencer: We certainly do. The theologian Charles Hodge went further and examined the nature of God’s preservation. He pointed out that there have historically been three general views held about this topic. The first view he presents is basically the view of most deists. He describes this view as believing that God “created all things and determined that they should continue in being according to the laws which He impressed upon them at the beginning. There is no need, it is said, of supposing his continued intervention for their preservation. It is enough that He does not will that they should cease to be.”[8]

Marc Roby: In other words, this view thinks of the world as a wind-up toy. God created it and set things in motion, but then backs up and watches without intervening in any way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The first objection that Hodge raises to this view is that it is opposed to the clear teaching of Bible. We’ve just read several verses that are simply incompatible with this idea.

Marc Roby: And that argument alone should be sufficient for any Christian.

Dr. Spencer: It should be, yes. But he also points out that this view, as he puts it, “does violence to the instinctive religious convictions of all men.”[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, people often speak and act in ways that make it clear that they don’t believe the universe is a big wind-up toy. Which is a point we made last time in discussing the sorts of things people say when a loved-one dies.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. The other views Hodge mentions are all types of what he calls continued creation. These views are certainly less common, especially today, and come in different forms, so I’m not going to examine them all or in any detail. Probably the most important one of them says that since God cannot be described by a succession of acts, therefore you can’t separate creation from providence. Another form of this view denies the reality of secondary agents altogether and says that God directly causes everything.

Marc Roby: Now that is a completely unbiblical view, and also not very appealing to logic and experience. It makes God the creator of evil and all of us just puppets.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, Hodge points out that it is indistinguishable from pantheism, it essentially makes God out to be the universe.[10]

Marc Roby: Which is certainly not a view to be taken seriously by anyone who has a meaningful conception of God, let alone by a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: No, we shouldn’t take it seriously at all. If it were true, which it obviously isn’t, we wouldn’t be able to seriously consider it in any meaningful sense since we wouldn’t really exist as independent sentient beings.

Marc Roby: Good point, the view is incompatible with true volitional creatures.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I will only consider the one form of continuous creation, which denies you can think about a succession of acts in God. This view allows for real secondary agents and attempts to deal with the fact that God is not subject to time in the same way we are. But it goes too far based on speculation and denies the clear teaching of the Bible. We can’t understand how God views time, but it is clear that independent of the fact he is, in some sense, outside of both space and time, he nevertheless acts in his creation in space and time.

Hodge correctly says that “It is the height of presumption in man, on the mere ground of our speculative ideas, to depart from the plain representations of Scriptures”.[11]

Marc Roby: It is, admittedly, difficult to understand God’s relation to time as we experience it.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but there is a good analogy presented by Wayne Grudem, which may help to understand this point.

Marc Roby: What analogy is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the analogy of a human author writing a story. Grudem uses this to help understand the idea of concurrence, the fact that the free-will actions of secondary agents can work together with God’s will to produce his desired outcome.[12] The idea is simple. If you are writing a fictional story, you know all that is going to happen to your characters in the future and you weave the story together to produce the end that you have chosen. But, if you are a good author, you also make sure that your characters do and say things that are appropriate and fitting for their given natures and knowledge of events at any given moment of time. In other words, you, as the author, experience time – in the sense of the story – completely differently than your characters do.

Marc Roby: That is a useful analogy, although very limited given the fact that God has created real people, not just characters in a story.

Dr. Spencer: Obviously God is infinitely greater than we are, but the analogy is useful nonetheless. And with that, we have said all I want to say for now about preservation, and we are ready to move on to discuss God’s government.

Marc Roby: And that makes this a perfect place to end for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] E.g., Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 315

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. 1, pg. 152

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[4] E.g., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, pp 575-616

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[6] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[8] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. 1, pg. 576

[9] Ibid, pg. 577

[10] Ibid, pg. 580

[11] Ibid, pp 578-579

[12] Grudem, pp 321-322

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, last time we made the point that it is both illogical and unbiblical to think that God can control major things if he doesn’t control the details of life. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to look at some Scriptures to strengthen and extend the scope of our argument that God providentially rules his universe.

Marc Roby: Very well, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: There are many passages that tell us that God is in control of every aspect of our lives. Louis Berkhof gives a nice representative, but certainly not exhaustive, list in his Systematic Theology.[1] He gives eleven categories to illustrate God’s providential control. His first category is sort of an umbrella that actually covers all of the others too, because he first points out that the Bible clearly teaches God’s providential control over the universe at large, by which he means the physical creation and all of human history. To back up this claim he first cites Psalm 103:19, which says, “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” [2]

Marc Roby: That verse implicitly makes an important point. When we think of God’s providence, we need to think of him ruling over his creation. He has a throne in heaven and a kingdom. And, as Psalm 19:1 tells us, all of creation declares his glory.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that’s an important point. God is not an impersonal force, he is a person, the King of the universe. Berkhof also cites Ephesians 1:11, which says, “In him”, referring to Jesus Christ, “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.

Marc Roby: And since this verse is speaking about God’s plan of salvation, it is clear that when it says “everything” it is speaking about human history, both collectively and individually.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. This verse speaks about human history, so it’s clear that Berkhof isn’t just thinking about the inanimate creation. That’s why I said this first category is a sort of umbrella. But, now let’s move on to Berkhof’s second category, which is God’s providential control over the physical world. He cites Psalm 104:14, which says that God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth”. He also cites Job 37, where Job’s friend Elihu is speaking about God and says, for example, in Verses 11-13, “He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love.”

Marc Roby: And that verse again illustrates that God’s providence is personal and has a purpose to achieve. I would also cite Job Chapter 38 to show God’s control of the physical world, where God himself peppers Job with a number of rhetorical questions regarding his creation and control of the world.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great chapter. And I would add that this in no way implies that there aren’t physical laws that govern our universe. God uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. There is a very interesting reference to the physical laws of our universe in the book of Jeremiah.

Marc Roby: It might be good to point out that Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Jerusalem before, during and after the Babylonians captured the city and took most of the prominent Jewish people away into captivity in Babylon between 605 and 587 BC.

Dr. Spencer: That does set the stage for his comment. As part of his prophecies, God told Jeremiah to encourage the people by telling them that their captivity was not the end of God’s work on their behalf. God was still in control and would, ultimately, restore the kingdom of Israel and bring the promised Messiah.

So, in Jeremiah 33:25 we read, “This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’”

Marc Roby: That verse uses a very interesting literary device. Instead of using a simple “if A then B” sentence structure, God uses an “if not A then not B” structure. But then he emphasizes the certainty of B by giving an A that the listener knows without any doubt to be true. When God says “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth”, he assumes that the listener will immediately recognize that he has, in fact, established his covenant with the day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth and therefore, when he says “then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David”, the implication is clear; God will not reject the descendants of Jacob and David.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very interesting literary device. And it also serves to emphasize God’s providential control of creation via the secondary agent of fixed laws, because the statement assumes that it is obvious to all that there are fixed laws of heaven and earth.

This is the reason science works. God rules his universe in an orderly way. The law of gravity, for example, is the same now as it was 200 years ago, and we have every reason to believe that it will be the same 200 years from now. Therefore, we can perform experiments, make observations, put forth hypotheses about the nature of gravity and then confirm or deny and refine those hypotheses by further experiments. And that is how we have come to understand so much of the physical world. This verse gives us a good biblical basis for doing science.

Marc Roby: Of course, it does not logically follow that God himself is incapable of violating those fixed laws if and when he so chooses.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. But, the vast majority of the time, they are fixed. And we have no power to alter them. Berkhof’s third category notes that God’s providence extends over all animals, which he calls the “brute creation”. He cites Matthew 6:26, where Jesus tells us to, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Marc Roby: We could again point out that there are secondary agents involved here. Plants have to grow and the animals themselves have to go and find the plants and eat them. It isn’t that God comes down and puts the food into their mouths.

Dr. Spencer: It is important to constantly take note of God’s use of secondary agents. There are very few things that God has done or continues to do by his own immediate action. In his fourth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over nations, citing, for example, Job 12:23, where we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.”

Marc Roby: Another great example would be Cyrus, King of Persia. God told his people about this king and what he would do more than 100 years before Cyrus was born. For example, in Isaiah 45:13 we read, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free”.

Dr. Spencer: Cyrus is an impressive example of God’s providential control over the nations of this world. Berkhof’s fifth category is God’s providence over man’s birth and lot in life and he cites Psalm 139:16 where we read that “your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Marc Roby: And I would add Jeremiah 1:5 to this list, where God tells the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is another great example, and it isn’t just the prophet Jeremiah that God knew before he was conceived. We read in Ephesians 2:10 that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has prepared work for each one of us in advance, and he can only do that if he has control over the details of our lives.

For his sixth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over the successes and failures of men and he cites Luke 1:52, where we are told that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Marc Roby: I would, again, want to add a verse to the list. We read concerning Joseph’s time in an Egyptian prison in Genesis 39:23 that “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

Dr. Spencer: And in Proverbs 21:31 we read that “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD.” There are many other verses we could cite as well, but it is clear that the Bible teaches us that all success comes from the Lord.

Berkhof’s seventh category is that God is sovereign over apparently accidental or unimportant events and he cites Proverbs 16:33 and Matthew 10:30, both of which we looked at in our previous session when we made the point that there are no chance events.

His eighth category is God’s providence in the protection of the righteous. The most important verse he cites there is Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Marc Roby: That is a familiar and very comforting verse for Christians. It isn’t that all things are, in and of themselves, good, but that they all work together for good. But only for those who love God and have been called according to his purpose.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an extremely comforting verse. God takes care of his children. And Berkhof’s ninth category is God’s providence in supplying the wants of God’s people. Now I must point out that he is using the word “want” in an old-fashioned sense here. He is really speaking of those things which we need. And to support this, he cites Philippians 4:19, where the apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi that “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, one of the most famous verses in the Bible is Psalm 23:1, which says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Which is, again, speaking about things we need, not all of our earthly desires.

Dr. Spencer: We also read in Psalm 84:11, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”

Marc Roby: And, amazingly, it isn’t just his chosen people that God cares about, Jesus himself commanded us in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is incredible. Berkhof’s tenth category is God’s providence in answering prayer. And to illustrate that point I would cite one Old Testament verse and one New Testament verse.

Marc Roby: I’m going to guess that the Old Testament verse is 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God tells Solomon, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the verse I had in mind. And in the New Testament, I would cite Matthew 21:22, where Jesus tells us that “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” And then finally, Berkhof’s eleventh category is God’s providence in the exposure and punishment of the wicked.

Marc Roby: I’m surprised Berkhof doesn’t also mention God’s providence in the full and complete salvation of his chosen people.

Dr. Spencer: I am as well, so let’s take the liberty of adding that ourselves. In Matthew 25:31-46 we read about the final destiny of all people. Jesus tells us in Verses 31-32 that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And then, in Verse 46 we read that those who have not trusted in Christ, “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And that verse shows us the end toward which God’s providential control of this world is headed. There are only two possible eternal destinations, heaven or hell. We must see our need for a Savior, repent of our sins, and trust completely in Jesus Christ to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: That is the most important decision any human being makes, what will they say to God’s glorious offer? The secular view of history is that it is not controlled by anyone and it has no ultimate purpose. We are just animals that live out our lives and then disappear from the scene. But that is not the truth, and God has given all of us more than enough information to know that it isn’t truth.

Marc Roby: Which is why even people who don’t claim any faith in God speak of people who die as being “in a better place” and things like that. They know the person still exists in some way.

Dr. Spencer: And that is also why people fear death so much. They know in their heart that they will be judged. And so, the biblical view of history takes into account the fact that history is linear. It had a beginning, it has an appointed end, and it has a purpose. In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice notes that “There is probably no point at which the Christian doctrine of God comes more into conflict with contemporary world views than in the matter of God’s providence.”[3] And he goes on to point out three things about the Christian view of providence. First, it is personal and moral.[4] It is not like the secular view of fate or chance. There is a personal God who rules his creation and deals with us as moral creatures who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Yes, and even for our thoughts.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, we’re told in Hebrews 4:12 that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” And God’s word is a reflection of his character. It isn’t just that his word judges in some abstract way, God himself will judge our thoughts and attitudes in a very concrete way on that day.

Marc Roby: Which is obvious given the fact, for example, that Jesus told us in Matthew 5:28, “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words, we will be judged as having broken the commandment to not commit adultery.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. In addition to saying that providence is personal and moral, Boice makes two more points about the Christian view of providence. He says, secondly, that providence is specific. By which he means that God deals specifically with individual people in our different individual situations.

Marc Roby: Which goes along with providence being personal. What is the third point that Boice makes?

Dr. Spencer: That God’s providence has a purpose, it is directed toward a specific end.

Marc Roby: Which is why you said that history is linear.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And now that we’ve given an outline of the biblical data regarding God’s providence, and made some general comments about the nature and purpose of his providence, I think we are ready to dive in a bit deeper and look at the doctrine systematically.

Marc Roby: But, we are out of time for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 168

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 176

[4] Ibid, pg. 180

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by beginning to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to begin by examining the back of a one-dollar bill.

Marc Roby: Well, that’s an unusual way to begin.

Dr. Spencer: But there is an important point to make by doing so. If you look at the back of a United States dollar bill, you will notice an unfinished pyramid on the left side. The pyramid has the first thirteen layers finished, which represent the original thirteen states and the bottom layer has the date 1776 written on it in Roman numerals in honor of our Declaration of Independence. The fact that the pyramid is unfinished represents the potential for growth. If you look above the pyramid you will see an eye floating above it. This eye is called the eye of Providence and represents God. It is enclosed in a triangle, which is a symbol for the Trinity and it has rays of light emanating from it, which represent the glory of God. Finally, there are two mottos written in Latin. The one above the pyramid says Annuit cœptis, and means that Providence, or God, has approved our undertakings. In other words, it expresses the idea that God approved of the founding of this country. Our founding fathers were declaring independence from England, but not independence from God. The motto below the pyramid says Novus ordo seclorum, which means a “new order of the ages”. [1]

Marc Roby: I’m quite sure that very few Americans know this, even though they all use dollar bills regularly.

Dr. Spencer: I’m confident you’re right about people not knowing, I’m less confident that everyone actually uses paper money regularly. But the important point I want to make is that when our country was founded, the idea of God’s providence was common. Many of our most prominent founding fathers were not born-again Christians as is sometimes claimed, but most of them did believe in God and most also believed in the idea of providence.[2] One can certainly debate exactly what some of them meant by providence, but there was a common notion that events in this world were governed in some way by an intelligent, powerful and good God.

Marc Roby: And that view continued to be the norm for quite some time.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly did. If you look at letters to and from soldiers in the Civil War for example, they often speak about Providence. For example, one father of a soldier in the Confederate army wrote the following to his son when he first joined the army; “War is a tremendous scourge which Providence sometimes uses to chastise proud and wicked nations.”[3] And I should point out that the word Providence in that sentence is capitalized, it was being used as a name for God.

Marc Roby: That reminds me Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. He famously quoted Matthew 18:7, where Jesus tells us, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” [4] And then Lincoln said that “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove; and that He gives to both north and south this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[5]

Dr. Spencer: That is a marvelous quote. It would be so wonderful to hear a modern president speak that way. Lincoln was acknowledging that God was in control of the Civil War and that it might very well be his judgment for the evil of slavery. In other words, he was aware of a Sovereign God who providentially rules and judges the affairs of men. And I should point out that at the end, when he said that “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”, he was quoting from Psalm 19:9 in the King James Version.

We could give many more examples, but my previous statement is true; it was the common view from the founding of this country up through most of the 19th century that events in this world were governed by an intelligent, powerful and benevolent God.

Marc Roby: Which is very different from the common modern view that the world is ruled by chance.

Dr. Spencer: And modern is not always right or better! Chance is a useful word, but we need to be careful how we use it and how we think about it. There is, in the final analysis, no such thing as a chance event. We are told in Proverbs 16:33 that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, casting a lot was the Old Testament equivalent of rolling the dice or flipping a coin.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God knows, and in fact controls, how the dice will roll or the coin will flip. There are no accidents or chance events in God’s universe. We need to be careful about our thinking and even about the expressions we use. They reflect and affect our thinking far more than we might realize. For example, if someone is in a bad car accident and walks away from it uninjured, we might be tempted to say they were very lucky, or very fortunate. But what is luck? And what is fortune?

Marc Roby: My Webster’s dictionary says that luck is “the things that happen to a person because of chance.” And it defines fortune as “something that happens by chance.”[6]

Dr. Spencer: Which, of course, begs the question, what is chance?

Marc Roby: Well, if we look in Webster’s again, we find that it says chance is “the way that events happen when they are not planned or controlled by people.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: I like that definition a lot. Notice that it is a negative definition, by which I mean it doesn’t really say what chance is, it says what chance is not. To say that something “happens by chance” means that it was not planned or controlled by people. It does not mean that it was not planned or controlled at all. In other words, you can’t give a positive definition of chance, you can’t really tell me what it is, because it is nothing. It is a word that expresses our ignorance about, or inability to control, the cause of something. If someone walks away from a bad car accident uninjured, the real reason is that God chose that outcome.

Marc Roby: And that brings us back to the providence of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a good, biblical definition of providence in the answer to Question 11, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: I love that short definition. But I think a lot of modern Christians don’t believe that God controls any of the details of life, let alone all of them. They somehow think of God as only being interested in the big issues, not the details.

Dr. Spencer: That is, without doubt, the most common view today. But it is illogical and unbiblical. To see that it is illogical, you only need to realize that God cannot control or guarantee the big things if the little things, the details of life, are somehow outside of his control or notice. We cannot trust any of God’s promises if there is any detail of creation that is outside of his control. Let me illustrate that by an example.

Marc Roby: Okay, please do.

Dr. Spencer: On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all seven people on board. The cause of the catastrophe was a small rubber O-ring on the solid rocket booster that didn’t seal properly because of the cold temperature at launch time. This illustrates how a tiny detail can govern a major catastrophe. I could give many more examples, but I think everyone knows this to be true if they think about it for a few minutes.

Marc Roby: And yet, you often hear Christians say things that imply some details of life are simply too small for God to bother with. For example, they may say something like, “God is too busy with important matters to worry about whether I buy this car or that car.”

Dr. Spencer: You do hear that kind of view being expressed, but it is, again, profoundly wrong. In the case of which car we buy, there are all kinds of things that might matter. For example, can I afford both of them? Is one of them far more practical for my needs? If so, why do I want the other one? Is it because it strokes my ego?

Marc Roby: Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t by that new Ferrari I was looking at?

Dr. Spencer: We can talk about that later. But, seriously, I’m not saying we always have to buy the most economical thing that will meet our needs, I don’t believe that is true. But God cares about our motives and reasons for the decisions we make, not just the decisions themselves.

I like what Charles Hodge wrote in answer to this objection. He wrote that “The common objection to the doctrine of a universal providence, founded on the idea that it is incompatible with the dignity and majesty of the divine Being to suppose that He concerns himself about trifles, assumes that God is a limited being; that because we can attend to only one thing at a time, it must be so with God. The more exalted are our conceptions of the divine Being, the less shall we be troubled with difficulties of this kind.”[8]

Marc Roby: That gets right to the heart of the matter. If we have any understanding of the infinite wisdom, knowledge and power of God, we will realize that he is not limited like we are. He doesn’t need to neglect details in order to focus on the more important matters.

Dr. Spencer: No, he doesn’t. And, as I illustrated earlier, the details can be extremely important. It is simply illogical to think that God can, for example, bring about his plan of salvation if he can’t control the details. Look at the crucifixion of Christ as the most important example. God provided us with numerous prophecies in the Old Testament about this most important event in human history. It is utterly inconceivable that he could have brought it to pass in fulfillment of those prophecies if any of the details were outside of his control.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is obvious when you think about it. Major events depend on a myriad of small details. I think we’ve shown that this view is illogical, but you said it is also unbiblical. We already quoted Proverbs 16:33 about the lot that is cast being determined by God. What other Scriptures would you cite to back up your statement?

Dr. Spencer: The first one I would cite is from Exodus Chapter 21, where Moses is giving the people specific laws and regulations after having just told them the Ten Commandments in Chapter 20. As a part of these detailed laws God deals with the difference between killing a man deliberately or accidentally.

Marc Roby: Which is sometimes difficult to discern if there are no witnesses.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, it can be impossible to discern. And God allows for that fact in a way that illustrates his great wisdom. In Exodus 21:12-13 we read that “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.”

Notice two things in this statement: First, if a man kills someone unintentionally, it is because God let it happen. There are no accidents, God is in control of every detail. That is the main thing I want to illustrate for now. But we can also take a very brief digression to point out God’s wisdom in dealing with this situation. And so, the second thing we note is that the man is to flee to a place that God will designate.

Marc Roby: Which we are told in Numbers 35 are certain cities, designated as cities of refuge.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. God provided places to which a person could flee to ensure that that person is given a fair trial, rather than being dealt with as a murderer without any due process. A specific example is given in Deuteronomy 19 of two men working in the forest cutting wood and the head of one man’s axe comes off and kills the other man. That man can flee to a city of refuge rather than being put to death as a murderer[9]. But, and here is were God’s wisdom is manifest; as you noted, if there are no witnesses, it can be very difficult to determine exactly what happened. There may be other evidence, but there will be cases where we simply can’t be sure if the man is guilty or not. So, in Numbers 35:25 the people were told that if the accused man is not found guilty, he shall not be put to death, but he also doesn’t go completely free, he must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the current high priest.

Marc Roby: In other words, there was punishment of a sort even if the man was found to not be guilty of murder.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And I think that is a marvelous display of God’s wisdom. It means it was not possible for a man to murder someone, make it look like an accident, and not be punished at all. But it also made sure that if the killing were accidental, the man was not treated as a murderer, but he would still receive some punishment so that people would be careful. We are responsible if someone else is injured or killed due to our negligence, even if we didn’t intend to harm that person.

Marc Roby: That does illustrate God’s wisdom. But, as you noted, for our purpose today, the main point was that there are no accidents. It only happened because God let it happen. What other evidence can you give to support the statement that it is unbiblical to think that there are any details outside of God’s control?

Dr. Spencer: In Matthew 10:29 we read that Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Now a sparrow falling to the ground is not exactly a major world event, but Jesus tells us it cannot happen apart from the will of God.

In addition, in the next verse, Matthew 10:30, Jesus goes on to say, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Now, this does not say that God determines the number of hairs, so one could argue it only illustrates his perfect and exhaustive knowledge, but it certainly illustrates that there is no detail too small for God to pay attention to.

Marc Roby: The number of hairs on our heads is about as trivial a detail as I can think of. But it depends on whose head you’re looking at, the number of hairs on some heads is far more trivial than others.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true, but let’s be kind. There are many other passages we could cite as well, but I think this is a good place to end for today. So, let me remind our listeners that we encourage them to email questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

Marc Roby: You took the words right out of my mouth. I look forward to continuing this discussion next time.

[1] E.g., see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Seal_of_the_United_States

[2] They have been called deists by many, but the most common view is that deists cannot believe in providence (e.g., on page 270 of his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem states the common view of the God of Deism as a watchmaker who makes and winds the clock and then steps back and lets it run). The World Union of Deists however says that some deists do believe in providence (see http://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm). While this question may be interesting, I chose not to discuss it because it is of little value, it is really an issue of definitions. It is clear from their writings that many of our founding fathers believed in Providence, although it is unclear precisely what some of them meant by that term. Whatever they meant however, it is incompatible with their writings to equate it to the modern idea of chance or fate.

[3] J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp; The True Story of the Great Revival During the War Between the States, Sprinkle Publications, 1986, pg. 30

[4] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[5] https://cdn.loc.gov/service/mss/mal/436/4361300/4361300.pdf (you can even view Lincoln’s handwritten original [see pages 6 & 8, the backs of the pages are also shown] here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mal.4361300/?sp=8&r=-0.184,0.113,1.299,0.645,0)

[6] Merriam-Webster dictionary app for Android phone, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2019

[7] Ibid

[8] Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. 1, pg. 583

[9] Deut 19:5

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we gave a number of examples for how to properly use the context of a verse, including its historical context. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: We could go on giving many more examples about the use of context, but I want to keep moving forward. So, I’d like to take a look at a few key ideas that we need to keep in mind as we study the Bible.

Marc Roby: What ideas are these?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is that Jesus Christ is the focal point of the entire Bible. The Old Testament looks forward to Jesus Christ and the New Testament tells us about his birth, life, death, resurrection and then also tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead as we are told in Acts 10:42, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 2 Timothy 4:1. At that time the world as we know it will be destroyed and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. From that time on everyone will either live eternally in heaven or in hell.

Also, Jesus himself told us that the Old Testament testified about him. After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and we are told in Luke 24:44 that “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’”[1]

Marc Roby: And by listing Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus was referring to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible, which is our Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. In other words, he was saying that the entire Old Testament speaks about him. In addition, the New Testament is entirely about Jesus Christ and his church. So, whenever we read the Bible, any part of the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, “What is this saying about Jesus Christ?”

Marc Roby: In other words, there is a Christological focus to the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In their excellent book A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones demonstrate that the Puritans considered a Christological focus to be a major principle of biblical interpretation. They quote the famous Puritan John Owen, who wrote that “the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built”.[2] We must keep this Christological focus in mind as we read the Bible or we will not get a complete understanding of what God is teaching us in each section.

Marc Roby: How, in a practical sense, does our being aware of this Christological focus affect our Bible study?

Dr. Spencer: It affects our Bible study very deeply. When we say that the entire Old Testament points forward to Christ what we mean is that God controlled every event of human history during that time to reveal exactly what he wanted people to know. Not only is Jesus Christ the focus of the Bible, he is also the focus of all history. History is linear and God has a purpose in creation. The Bible is telling us real history, but that history is not a sequence of random events controlled by the whims of men. It isn’t that God let things run on their own and then sent a prophet to speak once in a while. No, everything unfolded according to God’s eternal plan, he providentially rules all of history.

Marc Roby: That probably sounds a bit fatalistic to some of our listeners. Do you mean that God determines every detail, or just the general scope or grand plan of history?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God has sovereign control over every detail. But, if you think about it for a minute, how could he possibly control the grand scheme if he didn’t have control over every detail? Remember the old proverb that for the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of a horse the battle was lost; and for the loss of the battle the war was lost? The reality is that if God is not able to control every detail, he could never guarantee anything with absolute certainty.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that some of our listeners might be objecting at this point. After all, we live in a world with physical laws and people at least appear to have some kind of free will – an ability to make real decisions. How on earth then can God control everything without doing away with free will and physical laws?

Dr. Spencer: We would be getting too far off topic to discuss that at length right now but let me make two quick comments. First, with regard to the inanimate creation, God does use the fixed laws that he put in place most of the time, but he is free to overrule them at any time. I don’t think he does that very often at all, but he can. He also has the ability to perfectly predict exactly how everything is guided by those laws.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said you wanted to make two comments, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: The second one deals with living things, most specifically with human beings. Suffice it to say for now that there is no logical contradiction in saying that I make real decisions for which I can be justly held accountable and that, at the same time, God has foreordained exactly what will happen. God understands me perfectly and knows exactly what I will do in each and every situation, so he doesn’t need to force me to do anything.

Let me use a very unflattering analogy, but one that I think at least illustrates that there is no logical contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I used to have a dog that loved to chase a tennis ball. If I grabbed a tennis ball I could lead that dog all over the place without ever having to lay a hand on him. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do at that moment, and yet I was getting him to do exactly what I wanted him to do. There is no contradiction in saying that my dog was doing exactly what he wanted to do and that I was controlling the situation. You don’t want to take this analogy very far at all of course, we are not puppets, and God never leads us into sin, although he does allow us to be tempted, but it at least shows that there is no necessary logical contradiction.

Suffice it to say that God is infinitely more knowledgeable, wise, and capable than we are, and he is able to ordain exactly what will happen without, in general, overriding the free will of any creature, although he has the right and ability to do that when he chooses.

Marc Roby: That example is unflattering – I happen to remember that dog you refer to! But, I think it does give at least a hint of an answer, and I can see that pursuing that subject right now would get us way off track.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely would. But I would like to quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith because it contains a brilliant, yet succinct statement that deals with this topic. In Chapter III, on God’s eternal decree, Paragraph 1 the confession says that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: That is a great statement, although it certainly includes some very deep topics for further discussion.

Dr. Spencer: Further discussion at a different time. For now, I want to get back to hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: Very well, you were discussing how our being aware of the Christological focus of the Bible affects our study.

Dr. Spencer: And I made the point that God is completely in control of all history, so the events described in the Old Testament all fit into his eternal plan. He knew that he was going to send Jesus Christ into the world, to be born in the small Jewish town of Bethlehem to a virgin who was pledged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. He knew everything about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how he was going to use that to redeem a people for himself.

And in addition to revealing progressively more and more over time about this coming Messiah, he deliberately brought about certain events in the history of his people to serve as illustrations and precursors pointing to these later events.

Marc Roby: And we are told about many of these in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. For example, we are told in the book of Hebrews that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing forward to Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sins. In Hebrews 10 the writer speaks about the Old Testament ceremonial law and says it was only a shadow of the true sacrifice, which is Christ. He points out that the sacrifices were repeated over and over again precisely because they were not effective; they did not truly cleanse people from their sins. He writes in Verse 4 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” And then, in Verse 10 he writes that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: The writer of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus is our permanent high priest.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. In the Old Testament times, the high priest was the religious leader of the Jewish people. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses and he would go into the holy of holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, to make atonement for the people. In Hebrews 7:23-26 we are told that “there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”

Marc Roby: And, unlike the high priests in the Old Testament, Jesus is also the sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In John 1:29 we are told that “John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” He was referring to the fact that the lamb was the most common sacrificial animal in the Jewish sacrificial system. In particular, it was a lamb that was to be sacrificed the night before God destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt. The blood from this lamb was then to be sprinkled on the door frames of the Jewish homes and God would pass over those homes when he destroyed all of the firstborn in the land. This is the origin of the Jewish Passover celebration.

We are told in a number of places in the New Testament that Jesus is the final sacrifice of atonement. For example, in Romans 3:25 we are told that “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” Then, in Hebrews 10 we this final efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ contrasted with the continual sacrifices of the Old Testament. In Verses 11-12, 14 we read, “Day after day every priest [this is talking about the Old Testament priests] stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [which is speaking about Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. … because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Marc Roby: That is a glorious promise for those who have placed their trust in Christ. And it is very clear how much the Old Testament presents us with a pattern for things that are revealed in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. The word we use to describe this typology. The Old Testament events, objects and people who in some way point to New Testament realities are called types, and the realities that they point to are called the antitypes. So, for example, the Old Testament lamb is a type of Christ in his role as our sacrifice, and the Old Testament high priest is a type of Christ in his role as our permanent high priest.

We must be careful here however. Typology must be distinguished from allegorizing.  Allegorizing can be dangerous as we have noted before and can lead people into all sorts of fanciful interpretations.

Marc Roby: What would you say is the key difference?

Dr. Spencer: The key difference is that in typology we are not adding anything to the meaning of the text.[3] Mickelsen, in his book Interpreting the Bible, does a good job of explaining what typology is. He writes that “In typology the interpreter finds a correspondence in one or more respects between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament and a person, event, or thing closer to or contemporaneous with a New Testament writer. It is this correspondence that determines the meaning in the Old Testament narrative that is stressed by a later speaker or writer. The correspondence is present because God controls history, and this control of God over history is axiomatic with the New Testament writers. It is God who causes earlier individuals, groups, experiences, institutions, etc., to embody characteristics which later he will cause to reappear.”[4]

Mickelsen also goes on to contrast typology with allegorizing. He then quotes K.J. Woolcombe, writing that “Typology as a method of exegesis is ‘the search for linkages between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas allegorism is the search for secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meanings of a narrative.”

Marc Roby: So, the basic difference is between noticing certain similarities that are there as opposed to reading a bunch of hidden meaning into a passage.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And you can’t miss most of the clear typology in the Bible. The Jewish people were in slavery to the Egyptians for example, and were led out of that bondage, through Passover and the Exodus, into the Promised Land.  And Christians are led out of their bondage to sin, through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, into new life in Christ. The Israelites in the Promised Land still had to contend with enemies who were there and had to trust in God’s promises to deliver them. And Christians still have to deal with indwelling sin and enemies in this world, trusting in God’s promises that we will ultimately be victorious. There is much more than we have covered, but I think that gives the basic idea. And this kind of typology is often used in recognizing the many ways in which the Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: But there are also many direct prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, and we went over a few of them in Session 20 when we were discussing external evidence that corroborates the Bible.

Marc Roby: Have we finished with what you want to say about the Bible’s Christological focus and typology?

Dr. Spencer: We have for now.

Marc Roby: Alright, you mentioned at the beginning that you wanted to look at a few key ideas, so what is the next one?

Dr. Spencer: The next idea is that of covenants. The Bible talks a great deal about covenants and by looking for them and thinking carefully about them we can significantly enhance our understanding of God’s word.

Marc Roby: And a covenant is simply an agreement between two parties.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but it is not necessarily an agreement between equals and it isn’t necessarily voluntary on both sides either. The Bible talks about a number of covenants; for example, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by a flood, and the rainbow is the sign God gave us to remind us of that covenant. He also made a covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations. And he made a covenant with the people on Mt. Sinai, with Moses as their representative. There are others, but there are two major covenants that I want to discuss, usually called the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace.

Marc Roby: I think we had better hold off discussing those until next time, because we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 31

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 252

[4] Ibid, pg. 237

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