William Boekestein

The Beauty of Divine Simplicity

Christian theologians embrace divine simplicity because it is biblical. It also invites us to trust in His unity, share His sufficiency, and love all of Him. We cannot rank the divine persons; they are distinct from each other but not divided from each other. They are not three parts that add up to a single godhead. John Calvin understood the name God to be “the one simple essence, comprehending three persons.” In our chaos we can come to a God in whom, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, “the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.” Such as the one is, so are the three. “None in this Trinity is before or after, none is greater or smaller” (arts. 6, 7, 25). We can trust one God in three equal, co-eternal persons.

One of the best questions we can ask is also the most challenging: “What is God?”[1] As the Church has searched Scripture for answers it has consistently used a surprising word to describe the divine Being: simplicity. God is simple—not in the sense of “easily understood” but as “being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness.”[2] God is one (Deut. 6:4); He is both unique and indivisible.
The word simplicity, like trinity, is not found in the Bible, but reformed confessions affirm that the doctrine is biblical. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession states that “there is one Divine Essence…which is God: eternal, without body, without parts” (art. 1). Dutch Reformed believers confess the same thing: “There is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God” (Belgic Confession, art. 1). In the Church of England divine simplicity is taught in the Thirty-nine Articles, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions” (art. 1). The Westminster Assembly—which convened to modify these articles but then chose to replace them—retained the exact language of Anglicanism (Westminster Shorter Catechism 2.1), as did English Baptists (London Baptist Confession, 2.1). These confessions draw on the testimony of church fathers like Augustine, medieval theologians like Aquinas, and reformers like Calvin, Melanchthon, and Zwingli.
Divine simplicity is firmly embedded in the reformed confessional tradition. If we understand simplicity, we may come to join the doctors of the church in treasuring this doctrine.
What Is Divine Simplicity?
When God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush He identified Himself as being—the “I am” (Ex. 3:14). Unlike everyone else, He is not from somewhere or the fruit of ancestors. He is not even a species within a genus. Instead, He is the God who is, “the ultimate principle and …category of all things.”[3] Herman Bavinck wrote, “God is the real, the true being, the fullness of being, the sum total of all reality and perfection, the totality of being, from which all other being owes its existence.”[4] God is truly “all and in all” (Col. 3:11). Drawing from texts like these, divine simplicity maintains that in God there is “no composition, no contradiction, no tension, no process.”[5]
No Composition
God is not a sum of parts, as we are, made up of body and soul, atoms and neurons, past, present, and future. God’s attributes do not add up to what He is. As a child I wore out a book that described a little boy’s attributes—quickness, loudness, bravery—that made him who he was. Here is the climax of the book: “Put it all together and you’ve got me!” That’s true for us. It is untrue for God. Each of God’s attributes is identical with Himself and His other perfections because each is infinite.
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WCF 20: Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

The gospel of Christ might be summarized like this: “He was bound, so that we might be loosed from our sins.” And this salvation profoundly affects our calling. “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Part of our service of others is recognizing God’s lordship over our sense of right and wrong.

It is a sad fact: liberated Christians aren’t always good at practicing Christian liberty. We struggle to break free from the hold of besetting sins. Sometimes we even justify sin on the basis of our freedom in Christ. And we are tempted to hold others to the same standards as us even on matters in which they are not bound by Scripture.  This has always been so. But the last several years have made this weakness painfully obvious. Perhaps we don’t even consider Christian liberty to be very important. If you were writing a thirty-three point summary of the faith would you devote a chapter to the topic?
Our failure to practice Christian liberty is a tragic irony since in Scripture freedom is nearly synonymous with salvation—“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Believers have been delivered from sin in order to freely obey God. So we may not allow ourselves to become enslaved again. We need to treasure our freedom in Christ and respect his sovereignty over the conscience.
Treasure Your Freedom in Christ
Christian freedom means at least three important things.
Christ Frees Believers from Sin and Condemnation
Sin advertises freedom but always enslaves. Like how human traffickers often entice their victims with promises of greater opportunities, sin promises life but leads to death (Rom. 6:23). Apart from God’s grace sin reigns in our bodies, making us obey its passions. Jesus said that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34; cf. Rom. 6:12, 14, 17, 20; Gal. 4:3).
But Christ has set believers free from sin’s guilt, God’s wrath, and the law’s curse. We live in this “present evil world” but it does not define us. Satan can trouble us but does not own us. Sin tempts us but does not dominates us. Afflictions plague us but only for a little longer. Death and the grave grieve us but Jesus has removed their sting and cancelled their victory. No longer condemned by sin (Rom. 8:1) and barred from God’s presence believers are accepted in Christ and have “free access to God.”
Christ Enabled Believers to Obey God Freely
From the beginning God promised his people that he would deliver us from our enemies that we “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74–75). Apart from Christ you can’t do that. Slaves obey only under compulsion out of fear of punishment. God doesn’t want us to serve him like that. The gospel of free grace in Christ says to every believer: “You are no longer a slave, but a son” (Gal. 4:7). Only God’s love for us and our love for him can make our service for him a delight (see Gen. 29:20).
Christ Frees Believers from the Yoke of the Ceremonial Law
Remember that the ceremonial laws were given to “a church under age” (19.3). So “there was a childish and slavish aspect to the tutelage of the law” (see Gal. 4:1–3).[i]
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WCF 19: Of the Law of God

We desperately want to believe the best about ourselves. And with effort we can shrug off inner conviction. But it is harder to ignore God’s written word. Young King Josiah is an example for us. When he heard the words of the law “he tore his clothes” in humility; his “heart was penitent” (2 Kings 22:11, 19). Josiah knew that Judah was offending a holy God: “For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us” (2 Kings 22:13). Duly convicted he fought against idolatry with a holy hatred. And he believed God’s promise to pass-over the sin of the penitent. Josiah reinstituted the Passover which pointed to Christ and his perfect righteousness as the only protection against the angel of death. Use God’s law to come, as a needy sinner, to a perfect Savior.

Unlike every other religion Christianity is fundamentally a message of grace. True believers are “not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned” (cf. Rom. 6:14) Believers are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
But a misunderstanding of grace leads to a confused relationship with the law. Some think that any loyalty to law indicates legalism. Others ridicule God’s law, calling it inconsistent. After all, they reason, Old Testament prohibitions against homosexuality run alongside rules against mixing seeds in a field and materials in a garment (Lev. 18:22; 19:19; 20:13). Even Christians who are conscientious about God’s law can be unclear about which obligations are enduring and which have been fulfilled. We need a better understanding of God’s law so that we can use it in a way that honors him.
How Should I Understand God’s Law?
The principle of God’s law is very simple. The Creator imposes his values on his creatures. That truth never changes. In fact, in the New Testament Christ doubles-down on the necessity of rigorous obedience. In the Sermon on the Mount sincere submission to God’s law distinguishes citizens of God’s kingdom from citizens of the world. The law contrasts for us good works and works of the flesh. And we need that distinction. We must do good works which are only those “God hath commanded in his holy word” (16.1).
A right attitude toward God’s law requires understanding its history. The creation account reveals God’s right to order his creature’s activities. In the beginning God established boundaries for all of creation (Job 38:8–11). To his people he outlined definite expectations. You shall “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). “You shall not eat” of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). He didn’t simply tell people to “be good,” whatever that means; he told us how to live.
Even after Adam and Eve violated the covenant of works God continued to require “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience.”. In time God revealed himself more personally to a single tribe of people. When he rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt he made them into a holy nation by way of covenant, a binding agreement, summarized by the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19:6). And these laws are still “a perfect rule of righteousness.” If the two great commandments are to love God and our neighbor, these ten laws define that love (Matt 22:37–40). We love God by putting him first, worshiping him properly, respecting his name, and honoring his schedule for work and rest. We love our neighbor by respecting human authority, promoting life, practicing sexual integrity, stewarding our resources, telling the truth, and being content. 
So far so good. All serious Christians recognize ten commandments as a summary of God’s will. But what about the hundreds of other Old Testament laws? In addition to the abiding moral law God also gave Israel two categories of laws which do not apply to us today in the same way.
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WCF 18: Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation

You don’t need “extraordinary revelation” to know that you are a child of God. Through the ordinary means of grace—listening to God’s voice and using his ordinances—true believers may “be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Only Jesus’s blood shed for us gives us the confidence to enter the holy places (Heb. 10:19).

People who believe in Jesus and want in all things to please God can still struggle with assurance of salvation. Circumstances like the transition from childhood to adulthood, major trauma, and the imminence of death can trouble believers with spiritual doubts and fears.
But Scripture urges us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). To truly combat our doubt and gain rich confidence in God we have to be clear about what Scripture means by “assurance of faith.”
Assurance Is Different from Presumption
To presume is to take for granted that something is the case; to suppose without reason. One might presume that they have sufficient funds to write a check—that presumption could be false, and result in sad consequences. Many people, instead of experiencing genuine assurance of grace and salvation, simply “deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in favor with God.” The presumptuous put more stock in their own righteousness than in the righteousness of God which believers receive by faith. The self-deceived fail to reckon with God’s absolute holiness and human sinfulness. But God is holy. And we are sinful. It is the extremity of folly to simply declare yourself a child of God without warrant. Fabricated dreams of salvation will perish when hypocrites meet God.
And genuine assurance of salvation and mere presumption have different fruits. Hypocrites talk religiously, but lack the power of new life. Lacking a new heart and the Spirit working in them they continue to produce bad fruit, no matter their religious façade. Not so with real believers who gain true assurance. Contrary to the old objection proper assurance does not “[incline] men to looseness.” Instead, it results in “peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience.” Only by an assured faith can we know that our labors in the Lord are not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
Presumption is not assurance. A deep awareness of God’s holiness and our sinfulness will enable us resist taking grace for granted.
Assurance Is Possible
Scripture gives examples of believers who experienced genuine assurance of salvation. Job knew that his redeemer lives and that he would see God after he died (Job 19:25–26). Paul knew whom he had believed. He was convinced that God would guard him safely until he entered glory (2 Tim. 1:12). The Bible is written so that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God … and have life in his name” (John 20:31). “And by believing you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13). Scripture also calls us to pursue assurance. “It is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure” (cf. 2 Peter 1:10).
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WCF Chapter 17: Of the Perseverance of the Saints—John 10:22–30

You must persevere. To be sure that you will never fall “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). But the way saints persevere is not in their own strength. We fall and we fail. But we keep coming back to the cross. 

Many people suppose that “true believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.”[i] This opinion seems to be supported by Scriptural warnings against falling away, and examples in the Bible and in our own experience of people who negate earlier professions of faith.
But a right understanding of Scripture and experience suggests a different view. God’s beloved children can backslide. But those who finally fall away prove that they were not truly of the people of God (1 John 2:19). God’s children “can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
The Truth of Perseverance
Perseverance is a vital part of the ordo salutis: Whom God predestines, he also calls, justifies, and glorifies (Rom. 8:30). If God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” including perseverance (32). Those who are born again have “an inheritance that is imperishable, kept in heaven for them. God guards them “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4, 5). The outcome of genuine faith is actual salvation (9).
If God accepts a person in Christ, that person cannot be cast away. Paul expressed confidence about the saints at Philippi: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Those who are genuine partakers of grace God will surely make pure and blameless at the day of Christ (7, 10). This was Jesus’s conviction. Our Lord gives his sheep “eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of [his] hand” (John 10:27, 28).
Those who will persevere are saints truly in a state of grace who actually love the Lord and diligently walk in his ways. “For good reason, we speak of the perseverance of the saints, not the perseverance of all who profess faith.”[ii] God never promises that those who make a bare confession of faith in Christ will persevere to the end. In fact, “Among those who hate Christ the most, some once professed to trust him. His claims are so exclusive, and his demands so pervasive that, in the end, you must either give yourself to him completely or give him up altogether. There is no middle ground.”[iii]
But the truth of the perseverance of the saints, of those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is firmly fixed in Scripture.

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WCF 16: Of Good Works

God is glorified in two ways by our works. First, by doing them we faintly reflect his glory. God is loving, joyful, kind, faithful, and self-controlled. The God who shows his goodness through tangible works of service every day loves to see his children growing up to be like him (Matt. 5:44–45; Heb. 13:20, 21). Jesus put it this way, “By this is my father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Second, by doing good works we help others to glorify God. 

Martin Luther began his 95 Theses emphasizing the need for repentance. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther also understood that Jesus’ instruction “does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces” a changed life. This is how repentance leads into the topic of good works. Repentance is turning from sin “unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments” (15.2).
Christianity tells us how our sins can be forgiven. It also instructs us in the life of good works to which we have been called (Eph. 2:10).
What Are Good Works?
It would be easy for us to define works the way we look at art, as if beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. We might suppose that God just wants us to do our best. Good intentions executed zealously seem honorable to us. But rigor and sincerity do not guarantee the goodness of a work. The 9/11 terrorists were zealous. The doctors who drained forty percent of George Washington’s blood shortly before he died probably meant well.
We need a biblical definition of good works. According to God good works are actions prompted by the Holy Spirit which harmonize with God’s commands, proceed from faith, and are done for God’s glory.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit
By virtue of their divine image-bearing even non-Christians can be kind and just. They can be inventive, and productive, contributing to society. But an unbeliever can do no spiritual good. “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled. …They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:15, 16).
Only when God puts his Spirit within us will we keep his judgments and do them (Ezek. 36:27). Only those branches connected to the vine will bear good fruit (John 15:4–6). Our “ability to do good works is … wholly from the Spirit of Christ” (see Phil. 2:13) Even so God sanctifies our works by Christ’s work on the cross. Even the works of believers are so imperfect that they cannot be grounds for God accepting us. They are instead, evidence of God’s acceptance of us.
Pursuant with God’s Commands
The creator defines good and evil. He has told us what is good and what he requires of us (Micah 6:8). We mustn’t wait for a special prompting of the Spirit. We must do the good works that he commands. So to know and do God’s will the godly man “makes God’s law his portion and delight, and meditates upon that law with gladness day and night.”[i]
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WCF 15: Of Repentance unto Life

We can admit our sin trusting that Christ Jesus came into this world for the explicit purpose of saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). The worst sinners receive more grace. Only fools live as if they have no need to repent. God’s children know they are sick. But they also know that God has sent Christ to be their great physician. So tell God how your sin has made you sick, commit to pursuing spiritual health, and expect Jesus to make you well.

At the start of his ministry the Lord Jesus used just two verbs to summarize the good news of his kingdom: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Paul condensed his ministry in a similar way: I testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Only by this kind of preaching was Paul “innocent of the blood of all” (Acts 20:26). He had delivered the essential message that had been committed to him.
Repentance, along with faith, belongs to the “elementary doctrine of Christ”—it is foundational for the Christian (Heb. 6:1). By faith we accept, receive, and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. By repentance we turn from sin to God with a commitment to new obedience.
We must repent. So we need to know how to do it. But lest we try to do something we don’t understand we need to first know what repentance is.
What Is Repentance?
Repentance is “an evangelical grace.” Like faith repentance is a gift from God. Only God can “grant … repentance” to those who err (2 Tim. 2:25). Church leaders summarized Peter’s evangelistic crusade like this: “God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Jeremiah understood this same truth. He prayed, “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21 KJV). We are naturally enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:17). No one turns from sin apart from God’s energizing work.
Still, you and I must repent—“none may expect pardon without it.” “If a man does not repent God will whet his bow” (Ps. 7:12). Repentance isn’t meritorious. We don’t repent in order to gain God’s kindness. Penance isn’t how we pay for our sins. It isn’t the depth of our sorrow for sin, or the strictness of our turning from it that makes God favor us. Only the sacrifice of God’s sinless Lamb can do that. But to be pardoned you must repent.
To truly repent you must know sin’s misery. Penitent people see and sense sin’s danger. Some sins are patently dangerous—a life of violence is likely to end violently (Matt. 26:52). But a life of any iniquity will ruin you; it will kill you spiritually and eternally (Ezek. 18:30­–31). Sin is dangerous because it violates God’s rules for your happiness. No sin can provide lasting joy—only ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). The wicked will “fall into their own nets, while” the godly “pass by safely” (Ps. 141:10).
Penitent people also see and sense sin’s filthiness. Sin is repulsive to the believer. It is contrary to God’s holy nature and violates his holy law. This is why every sin, even the smallest sin “deserves damnation.”
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WCF 10: Of Effectual Calling

We were deaf to his words of warning and affection; now we hear his voice and we want to follow him (John 10:16). God’s work of regeneration transforms elect sinners. It isn’t a complete renewal—that happens at glorification. But it is a real start. And what God starts he always finished (Phil. 1:6).

Salvation is like a treasure that becomes more precious to us the better we understand it. One way of better understanding our salvation is to study what theologians call the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation, the “process by which the work of salvation … is subjectively realized in the hearts and lives of sinners.”[i] Romans 8:30 is the classic text on how God saves: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Embedded in those terms are additional concepts that fill out our understanding of salvation, but this verse provides biblical warrant for itemizing the motions of divine grace. Ultimately, salvation is like a single golden chain, one unified work of God. Still, to get to know our great salvation we can study each of the links in turn.
The first link is election, God’s eternal and gracious choice to save some sinners. But to understand how the elect actually become Christians we turn to effectual calling. The word “calling” rightly suggests that God offers grace to sinners; through “the ministry of the Word” he calls wayward children to come home. But the calling of God is more than an invitation. It is effectual, it actually produces the desired effect. The effectual call is also known as regeneration, God’s one-sided action whereby he brings dead sinners to life in Christ.
Who Are the Called?
Put simply, those who are called are spiritually dead but elect sinners.
God Effectually Calls the Elect
The effectual call is different from the general call of the gospel. The call to repent and believe goes out to everyone who hears it. God is constantly calling sinners to turn from their sins and find life in him. God’s kind providence should stimulate us to repent (Rom. 2:4). The loveliness of nature is an invitation to find the author of this beauty. Our troubled consciences warn us to flee sin and seek righteousness. And, mostly clearly of all Scripture tells the story of God’s redemption so that we might ourselves be redeemed. But all this knowledge of God people naturally twist, exchanging his truth for a lie (Rom. 1:18–25). Only to the elect does God make this call effective for salvation. It is in this sense that Jesus interprets his parable of the wedding feast: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).
Those who are chosen are not elected for any personal qualifications. As God’s eternal predestination is “without any foresight of faith … or any other thing in the creature, as conditions” affecting his choice (ch. 3), so is the effectual calling “of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man.”
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WCF 6: Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment Thereof

Having corrupted natures we can’t reform ourselves. We can’t even choose Christ as our Savior unless the Father makes “us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). By God’s grace sinfulness can be pardoned and weakened but not destroyed in this life. Even born-again people sin because they are still sinners till the day they are fully redeemed in glory.

One of the first questions friends ask parents of newborns is, “Does she look like mom or dad?” Often it’s hard to say; kids inherit traits from both their parents.
Children share more than their parents’ looks. They also acquire their nature. “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen. 5:3). That sentence is both happy and sad. Seth was a gift from God, a new start. But Seth was born to sinners; the likeness he now shared with his father and mother was marred. And so the human story has continued.
To know ourselves we need to understand what happened to our first parents when they tried to make their own way in the world contrary to God’s truth.
The First Sin (6.1–3)
The event of the first sin is narrated in Genesis three. Satan, taking the form of a serpent, seduced and deceived Eve (1 Tim. 2:14). Eve disobeyed God and ate fruit from a forbidden tree, as did Adam, following his wife.
The Bible doesn’t explain how it was possible for Adam and Eve to sin. But we know they had a truly free will; they were not forced into disobedience. The serpent was “more crafty than any other beast of the field” (Gen. 3:1). But the father of lies (John 8:44) still has creaturely limitations. Today too if we resist Satan he will flee from us (James 4:7; Matt. 4:11). Even fallen humans can rule over sin (Gen. 4:7). Moreover Adam and Eve had one rule to respect. They clearly understood God’s word and could have lived by it (Matt. 4:4). Finally, Eve had a partner. She should have asked Adam, the master of the garden, to help her withstand the devil. She didn’t have to stand alone (see Eccl. 4:12). Despite every advantage to obey God and retain their innocence, our first parents disobeyed.
Even this catastrophic first sin, “God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.” Just how sin is part of God’s plan doesn’t have to make sense to us.
Our first parent’s sin had immediate tragic consequences. From a plain read of Scripture clearly something happened to the relationship between God and his first people after their sin. Hiding from God was something entirely new and totally unexplainable apart from disobedience. God had warned that death would come to earth if they ever transgressed; and it had. Humans had become “dead in sin.” Evil now defined them (see Gen. 6:5). So it was no longer natural for man to commune with God. As further evidence of their fallenness their eyes were truly opened (Gen. 3:7); they now knew shame, fear, and conflict.
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WCF Chapter 5: Of Providence

It might seem strange that the confession’s teaching on providence deals mainly with its darker side. Of course, everything the confession says about God’s redemption of humanity could also be considered under the heading of providence. But providence does often rattle our faith. Yes, our heavenly Father providentially cares for his children (Matt. 6:25–34). But sometimes his care feels lacking. How can we make sense of providence when God leaves “his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts”? 

God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). We study God’s decree—his eternal plan—to grapple with his sovereign foreknowledge. We reflect on God’s providence—his working all things—to appreciate his present involvement in our world. God has not left us to fend for ourselves.
Still, the relation of God’s decree and his ongoing work in this world raises challenging questions. We wonder how providence affects human choices. We struggle to relate providence to human sin. And, if God works all things for the good of the church, why does providence sometimes seem hard even for Christians? We can’t answer all these questions to the satisfaction of our curiosity. We can’t perfectly harmonize Scripture’s teaching on how a good God can be totally in charge of a broken world. But trying to understand God’s work in our world can help us develop more mature trust in him.
How Does God’s Providence Work? (5.1–3, 7)
“God, the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things.” The living Word who created everything still “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Nothing is outside of God’s control. King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that God “Does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35). The king discovered that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (32). Truly God is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” To him belongs “eternal dominion” (1 Tim. 6:15–16).
Because God is the “First Cause” of everything, even “second causes” are under his control. God is involved even when his hand is invisible. Nothing can evolve independently or be emancipated from the Creator. God commonly uses means to work his will. Skilled doctors are merely instruments in the great Physician’s hands. But God isn’t bound to means. God can work without means, as when Jesus raised Lazarus with his mere voice (John 11:43–44). God can work above means, as when he provided a son for aged Abraham and barren Sarah. God can work against means, as when he preserved his servants in a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:27).
And God’s providence is not only sovereign, it is also good. He governs according to his perfect “wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” No one else has a fraction of the qualifications to unfold world history. And God’s goal is perfect. God’s providence brings him glory and promotes the good of the church. We can’t always see how. But we believe that he will glorify himself (Lev. 10:3) and that, because of his rich love for the church, he will, at the close of history, present her to himself perfect (Eph. 5:25–27).
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