Providence and Common Grace

Michael S. Horton
Monday, September 2nd 2002
Sep/Oct 2002

Providence."In our culture, when we hear this word, we probably think first of Rhode Island or the TV show based on it. At one time, however, the word bore so much heavy freight that towns like the one in Rhode Island were named after this doctrine. Roger Williams, the Calvinistic Baptist who helped found the colony, certainly had God in mind.

During the Reformation, in the sixteenth century, the doctrine of providence received renewed attention as the reformers recovered the belief that God usually works in quite ordinary ways-through natural or "secondary" causes-to achieve his designs. Distinguishing between natural and supernatural and recognizing that nature is a space of divine activity allowed these to explain someone's recovery from the plague in medical terms rather than immediately chalking it up to miraculous intervention-even as they still acknowledged God and his glory as the ultimate cause of the art of medicine itself.

Earlier, in popular medieval life, God's providence was overshadowed by a fascination with the miraculous-indeed, with superstition. People felt they lived in an enchanted realm in which unseen forces of good and evil could be experienced palpably. There was no real division in their minds between the natural and the supernatural.

Later, during the Enlightenment, the division between natural and supernatural grew into a gulf until, finally, God's activity in this world was reduced by the deists to his building the great cosmic machine and getting it started, while not deigning to get his hands dirty or upset the rigid laws of nature by involving himself in its day-to-day operations. God became the ideal chairman of the board.

Today, this gulf is even wider, with two prevailing extremes often expressed. At one extreme are those who are, at least in practice, naturalists: they do not consider God involved with the "secular" or "natural" realm of our existence. Like the deists, they see the world as operating like a machine. Winter follows fall and spring follows winter. They stress that what used to be called "acts of God"-interruptions of the ordinary processes of nature-are now increasingly explicable in fully scientific terms (This makes it one of the great tragedies in the history of apologetics that many modern Christian thinkers have used a "God-of-the-gaps" defense of divine activity in nature and history). The naturalists argued that whatever could not (yet) be explained by science was to be put in the category of "mystery," which left room for the "hypothesis" of God. But as those gaps have shrunk with the advancement of scientific explanations, we at last came to mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace's famous announcement, "We no longer have need of that hypothesis."

At the other extreme are the hyper-supernaturalists who, like medieval folk, seem to discern God's miraculous hand in the rustling of a leaf. They regard God's direct intervention-that is, miracle-as the ordinary and expected way of encountering God's presence in their lives and in the world. So, for example, instead of making wise choices based on solid common sense, they wait for "God's leading" and seem frozen in their tracks until they can discern God's perfect will for their lives.

Whether at the hands of naturalists or hyper-supernaturalists, the doctrine of providence suffers a great deal. Consequently, we need to recover this great truth and express it in practical, concrete ways to our contemporaries. This means we must (contra hyper-supernaturalism) make some clear distinctions without (contra naturalism) setting what we have distinguished in opposition or denying one distinction for the other.

Hidden and Revealed "Things"

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29). This distinction between things hidden and things revealed is maintained throughout Scripture. In fact, the exact form that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy would take in the unfolding plan of redemption is represented as "a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory," and which now has been "revealed to us through the Spirit" in the gospel (1 Cor. 2:7, 10). This response is elicited after a proto-gnostic assault on Paul's ministry-an assault based on the belief of certain "super-apostles" that they had a higher form of knowledge than he did. These "super-apostles" claimed to have cracked the code for entry into God's secret chambers. To their claim, Paul opposes the Word of God entrusted to him and the other apostles, which was the revelation of God's plan of salvation in the fullness of time.

Yet although God has revealed much more in this New Covenant era than he did in the Old Covenant era, he has still not revealed everything. In fact, Scripture never indicates that we will ever know everything or have all our questions answered. God has revealed everything we need to know, but not everything we might like to know. He remains Lord over his counsels. We know that he has decreed all that comes to pass (see, for example, Psa. 139:16; Prov. 16:4; 16:33; Acts 13:48; 17:26; Eph. 1:4-5; 2:10), but we lack any promise that we can access this information through proper formulae. In fact, the attempt to know more than God has actually revealed is characteristic of superstition and magic rather than of Christian piety.

What then of Romans 12:2, which promises that "by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect"? As usual, we must read this verse in context: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." In context, this is a command to immerse ourselves in the study of Scripture, which renews our minds and allows us to test-or examine or investigate-our beliefs and practices by God's Word. In so doing, we are able to know God's will better-his good and perfect will as it is revealed in Scripture. God's good and perfect will is not secret. It is not hidden from us, in the way his eternal decrees are hidden. We have no reason to believe that God will specially and supernaturally reveal to us who we should marry or which job we should take or where we should live, even though we know that he has "determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place" (Acts 17:26). Yet we can and should be confident that he has revealed everything necessary for salvation and godliness.

Thus, even John Calvin acknowledges that while

All things may be ordained by God's plan, according to a sure dispensation, for us they are fortuitous. Not that we think that fortune rules the world and men, tumbling all things at random up and down, for it is fitting that this folly be absent from the Christian's breast! But since the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose, and are not apprehended by human opinion, those things, which it is certain take place by God's will, are in a sense fortuitous. For they bear on the face of them no other appearance, whether they are considered in their own nature or weighed according to our knowledge and judgment. (1.16.9)

Earlier, Calvin declares that "it would not even be useful for us to know what God himself . . . willed to be hidden" (1.14.1); and, recalling a retort reported by Augustine, he adds, "When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious" (1.14.1).

Common Grace/Special Grace

Presbyterian theologian John Murray has claimed justly, concerning the doctrine of common grace, that "On this question Calvin not only opened a new vista but also a new era in theological formulation" (The Collected Writings of John Murray 2:94). Although the term itself came into use much later, the treatment of what we now call "common grace" fell under Calvin's discussion of God's providence.

As Christians, we naturally think of the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of believers. This perception is understandable given the sheer proportion of biblical passages that treat it in that context. And yet we must not overlook the fact that the same Spirit who brooded over the waters in creation upholds all things (along with the Father and the Son) and is just as active in lavishing his gifts of intelligence, friendship, love, passion, vocation, family, culture, government, art, science, and so forth upon non-Christians as he is in lavishing his saving gifts on his people.

Just as some Christians demand God's direct involvement in their lives to the point of presuming to be able to discern his secret plans, some Christians expect Scripture to address every possible contingency of their lives. But while we must limit our "Thus says the Lord" to that which God has actually said, we must not limit our pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty merely to the pages of Scripture. The reality of God's common grace means that we are free to pursue-and, indeed, expected to pursue-truth, goodness, and beauty wherever God's Spirit has scattered it, even in secular sources. In other words, we must reject the false dichotomy that assumes that either God directly reveals our every step or God does not order our steps at all. We must remember that while Scripture leads us into infallible truth even on points that overlap with "common grace," God has given gifts to all people-believers and unbelievers alike-that we must capitalize on in a variety of earthly callings and pursuits.

As Murray points out, common grace accounts for a variety of benefits that God gives to all people, indiscriminately. First, it restrains sin. In the aftermath of September 11th, Christians are being asked, once again, to address the problem of evil. While acknowledging evil's mysteriousness, part of my response to those requests has included a question for the questioner-namely, How do you explain the "problem" of good? In other words, while some of us are less likely than others to become terrorists, in the mirror of God's law we are all wicked. We all fail to love God and our neighbor in countless ways every day. So the real question is, Why does the world include any good? Apart from God's providence, September 11th would have been a normal day. Yet we all know that it was, in fact, abnormal. Even though such terrorism is an ever-present threat, God's common grace usually restrains it from happening. Because of the depravity of the human heart and the corruption of institutions in which sinful habits have become deeply embedded, things are often bad, but they are never as bad as they could be, thanks to God's common grace. In his common although not saving mercy, God placed a mark even on violent Cain; and so even he was able to build a city (see Gen. 4:15, 17).

Secondly, God's common grace restrains God's own wrath. Because of this grace, God was "longsuffering" in the face of human depravity "in the days of Noah" (1 Pet. 3:20). Then, after the flood, God covenanted with us and all living creatures never to destroy the earth again by water (see Gen. 9:8-17). Again (although this overlaps with God's plan to save his people), God's common grace led him to overlook human ignorance before Christ (see Acts 17:30) and now leads him to delay his final judgment (see Rom. 2:4 and 2 Pet. 3:9).

But, thirdly, common grace not only mercifully restrains sin and wrath, it is also the means by which God gives us much tangible good. Murray writes,

He not only restrains evil in men but he also endows men with gifts, talents, and aptitudes; he stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. (2:102)

Scripture is full of examples of God's providential goodness, particularly in the Psalms. "The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made…. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Ps. 145:9, 16). Some Christians think that regeneration confers special benefits that render believers superior artists, politicians, businesspeople, and even parents. But both these Scriptures and experience confirm that unbelievers may excel in their vocations and believers may fail in theirs. In the field of common endeavor ruled by God's creation and providence, there is no difference in principle between believers and unbelievers in terms of gifts and abilities.

Jesus calls upon his followers to pray for their enemies for just this reason: "For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:44). Christians are supposed to imitate this divine attitude. In fact, it is clear from the parable of the sower that unbelievers even benefit from the Spirit's work through the Word; and it is undeniably true that although much harm has been done in the name of "Christendom," innumerable benefits have come to civilization as a result of biblical influences.

Of course, we must not confuse common grace with God's special or saving grace. Common grace benefits fallen humanity in the sphere of creation but not in the sphere of redemption. It does not save evildoers nor does it redeem art, culture, the state, or families. Unlike saving grace, it is restricted to this world before the last judgment and will not stay God's hand of justice on that dreadful day. But this reality does not mean that it is at odds with saving grace. As Murray says, "Special grace does not annihilate but rather brings its redemptive, regenerative and sanctifying influence to bear on every natural or common gift; it transforms all activities and departments of life; it brings every good gift into the service of the kingdom of God. Christianity is not a flight from nature; it is the renewal and sanctification of nature." He rightly observes that this perspective challenges ascetic and monastic versions of spirituality because "its practical outlook has been, 'For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer' (1 Tim. 4:4, 5)."

When we, as Christians, affirm common grace, we take this world seriously in all of its sinfulness as well as in all of its goodness as created and sustained by God. We see Christ as the mediator of saving grace to the elect but also of God's general blessings to a world that is under the curse. This allows us to participate in secular culture, to enjoy relationships with unbelievers, and to work beside them in common vocations and toward common goals without always having to justify such cooperation and common life in terms of "ministry" and "outreach." For me, this has been one of the most liberating aspects of Reformation theology, but one that is often underappreciated even in our own circles, where believers are regularly expected to justify their existence by pursuing some ministry in the church rather than by pursuing their secular callings.

Not only can unbelievers, by common grace, sustain their own goods, truths, and beauties; they can also enrich believers' lives. One example of Calvin's theological balance is that he can appreciate not only the depth of human depravity but also the depth of human dignity because of his awareness of God's creation and common grace. In a celebrated passage, he pleads against the fanaticism that would forbid all secular influence on Christians, concluding that when we disparage the truth, goodness, and beauty found among unbelievers, we are heaping contempt on the Holy Spirit himself:

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration…. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? … Those men whom Scripture calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. (2.2.15)

Elsewhere, Calvin even quotes pagan poets and philosophers on religious topics-a practice sanctioned by the Apostle Paul's example in Acts 17.

Even pagan rulers exercise their dominion as a result of God's providence (see 1 Pet. 2:14; Rom. 13:1-7); and so God secretly governs the nations just as he does his church. To believe that a government must be framed according to "the political system of Moses," rather than according to "the common laws of nations" is "perilous and seditious" as well as "false and foolish" (4.20.14). The Mosaic theocracy was limited to the old covenant and is no longer the blueprint at a time when there is no chosen nation (see 4.20.16). Natural law-the law of God written upon the conscience of every person-allows for a marvelous "diversity" in constitutions, forms of government, and laws, all of which are in their own times and places acceptable as long as they preserve the "equity . . . [that] must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws" (4.20.16).

Primary and Secondary Causes or Instrumental Causes

The example of Joseph telling his brothers concerning their past treachery, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20) is paradigmatic of the distinction we are considering here. So, too, is Acts 2, where Peter places the blame for Christ's death squarely on the shoulders of those people who took part in his crucifixion and yet also affirms that he was delivered up according to God's foreordination and plan. Since Kim Riddlebarger and Mark Talbot deal with these passages in greater depth later, it now suffices to say that these two examples, supported by many others, indicate the propriety of distinguishing between God's agency as the primary cause of all that happens and human (as well as nonhuman) agency as secondary or instrumental causes. If Scripture holds humans responsible for their own actions and yet affirms God's sovereignty, so, too, must we.

Ironically, today many who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty will nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their lives directly and immediately, without any instrumental means. If someone attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of physicians, well-meaning Christians often reply, "Yes, but God was the one who healed her." Sometimes some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God's sovereignty: "Just pray about it"-"Well, if God wants it to happen, it will happen"-and so forth. Granted, belief in God's providence should assure us that ultimately our times are in his hands; but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly and immediately. Ordinarily, he employs means-whether people, weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, or a host of other factors over which he has ultimate control. He even used secular treaty patterns of political organization to institute his covenantal relationship with his people.

Calvin calls God's providence "the determinative principle of all things," even though "sometimes it works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary" (1.17.1). Running parallel to the distinction between God's hidden and revealed will is this other distinction between God's primary causality in governing the universe and creaturely instrumental or secondary causes. Calvin compares what God decrees in his hidden will to a "deep abyss," in contrast with what God has "set forth familiarly" in his revealed will:

And it is, indeed, true that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which tower far above the reach of our senses. But since God illumines the minds of his own with the spirit of discernment for the understanding of these mysteries which he has deigned to reveal by his Word, now no abyss is here; rather, a way in which we ought to walk in safety, and a lamp to guide our feet, the light of life, and the school of sure and clear truth. Yet his wonderful method of governing the universe is rightly called an abyss, because while it is hidden from us, we ought reverently to adore it. (1.17.2; my emphasis)

At the same time, Calvin affirms that we can know much about how the universe operates through studying the secondary causes by which God brings his hidden will to pass; and so he rebukes anyone who would use the doctrine of God's providence as an excuse for fatalism: "For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care; he has provided means and helps to preserve it; he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies" (1.17.4). We are, therefore, obligated to study these secondary causes so that we can appropriate them. No doubt God has planned our future and is actively bringing it to pass. Yet, "nevertheless, a godly man will not overlook the secondary causes" (1.17.9).

This last claim is particularly important for our purposes. To affirm soli Deo gloria (to God alone be glory) is not to deny that both doctors and God heal us-the doctors as the secondary or instrumental causes and God as the primary or ultimate cause. In fact, it is only when we recognize God's hand in everyday providence, through the instrumentality of various means, that we are ultimately able to attribute everything to his glory. Evangelical theology desperately needs to recover this balanced understanding of God's work in our lives-and, indeed, in the lives of all his creatures.

Providence and Miracles

The crucial distinction between providence and miracle is related to all of the preceding distinctions. As we have said, people in our highly scientific, technologically sophisticated era, have trouble affirming the need for-much less the reality of-God's ordinary providence through secondary means. But in many cases the Christian response has not been to reassert this doctrine. Rather, traditionally it is to leap immediately to the category of miracles. In other words, Christians often respond to naturalism with the claim that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives through miracles. Starved for some practical sense of God's concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them daily encounters with the miraculous.

The net result is that naturalism and this hyper-supernaturalism conspire to drive out any real sense of God's involvement in the normal, everyday, nonmiraculous events of our lives. If God is involved in someone's recovery from cancer, it is hailed as "a miracle." I am not for one moment denying that miracles do indeed occur in people's lives, but what shall we say of the countless cases of recovery that can be medically documented as having been produced by human ingenuity and medical technology? Are we to surrender these successes to human beings alone and fail to recognize that even here-in the nonmiraculous, nondirect intervention of God-our sovereign Lord is just as actively at work and, therefore, just as worthy of being the ultimate object of our praise and thanksgiving? Why must we call the birth of a child-probably the most spectacular example of ordinary divine providence-"a miracle" in order to acknowledge God as its ultimate source? A child's birth is clearly not a miracle; it does not result from God directly and immediately intervening in the natural course of things. It is the ordinary result of the right use of the proper means, from conception to delivery. Nothing could be more natural. And yet nothing could be a more marvelous testimony to God's providence.

Christians must recognize God's hand not only in the marvel of miracle, but in the splendor of providence. Here, once more, Calvin's previously noted insights are helpful. "Nothing is more natural than for spring to follow winter; summer, spring; and fall, summer-each in turn," he writes. "Yet in this series one sees such great and uneven diversity that it readily appears each year, month, and day is governed by a new, a special, providence of God" (1.16.2). Naturalistic deism, which sees nature as a great cosmic machine obeying rigid and inviolable laws, simply cannot account for the diversity that both our experience and the natural sciences betray. That is one reason why the rigid Newtonian picture of nature has largely disappeared, giving way to the recognition of mysterious diversity and apparent disorder. While "chaos theory" has led to a belief in radical indeterminism on the part of some, mainstream scientists increasingly acknowledge that such apparent chaos could not possibly exist unless there is some ultimate, underlying order-something that keeps complete chaos at bay. Naturalism flies in the face of nature itself. At the same time, hyper-supernaturalism errs by failing to acknowledge that there is real order-that season follows season in an annual pattern-and that this order does not result from God's constant, miraculous intervention but from his providential oversight of and involvement in nature through indirect and secondary means.

We do not know God's secret will. And so when, for instance, sexually transmitted diseases wreak havoc in a promiscuous society, we are not at liberty to announce that a particular disease, such as AIDS, is a direct judgment of God on a particular group, such as homosexuals. At the same time, however, precisely because God has revealed his moral will for sexual behavior in Scripture and in conscience, we can be assured that there are practical consequences for immoral action. We should not call these consequences "miraculous" (as in direct divine intervention) but we can recognize them as "providential" (God's so ordering nature that people usually reap what they sow). Such consequences are due to the regularity of nature, rather than to the eschatological judgment that will come on all flesh.

Making these important distinctions has many practical consequences, provided we do not set them in absolute opposition or deny one of them to affirm another. God is Lord in his secret counsel and in his revealed will; in both common and saving grace; through his primary causality as well as through his upholding the universe's secondary causes; in miracle and in providence. Yet nothing confirms God's universal lordship more clearly than that he has revealed his central plan, hidden in past ages but made known in these last days, to reconcile all things together in Christ to the glory of God the Father so that he may be all in all. providence common grace Roger Williams Reformation doctrine natural supernatural miraculous superstition hidden revealed special grace

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, September 2nd 2002

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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