The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 5

Of Providence

SECTION 1: GOD, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold,(1) direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things,(2) from the greatest even to the least,(3) by his most wise and holy providence,(4) according to his infallible foreknowledge,(5) and the free and immutable counsel of his own will,(6) to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.(7)

Scripture Proof Texts

(1) Heb. 1:3. (2) Dan. 4:34,35; Ps. 135:6; Acts 17:25,26,28; Job 38:, 39:, 40:, 41: (3) Matt. 10:29-31. (4) Prov. 15:3; Ps. 104:24; 145:17. (5) Acts 15:18; Ps. 94:8-11. (6) Eph. 1:11; Ps. 33:10,11. (7) Isa. 63:14; Eph. 3:10; Rom. 9:17; Gen. 45:7; Ps. 145:7.

Since the eternal and immutable purpose of God has certainly predetermined whatsoever comes to pass, it follows that he must execute his own purpose not only in his works of creation, but likewise in his continual control of all his creatures and all their actions. This section therefore teaches:

1. That God having created the substances of which all things are composed out of nothing, having endued these substances with their respective properties and powers, and having out of them formed all things organic and inorganic, and endowed them severally with their respective properties and faculties, he continues to sustain them in being and in the possession and exercise of those properties during the entire period of their existence.

2. That God directs all the actions of his creatures according to their respective properties and relations.

3. That his providential control extends to all his creatures and all their actions of every kind.

4. That his providential control is in all respects the consistent execution of his eternal, immutable, and sovereign purpose.

5. That the final end of his providence is the manifestation of his own glory.

1. With regard to the question how God is concerned in upholding and preserving the things he has made, three different classes of opinion have prevailed:

(1) Deists and Rationalists generally regard God as sustaining no other relation to his works than that of the first of a series of causes and effects. He is supposed to touch the creation only at its commencement, and having given to things a permanent independent being exterior to himself, he leaves them to the unmodified exercise of their own faculties.

(2) Pantheists regard all the phenomena of the universe of every kind as merely the various modes of one universal absolute substance. The substance is one, the modes many; the substance abides, the modes rapidly succeed each other; the substance is God, the modes we call things. Some true Christian theologians have taken a view of the relation of God to the world which comes perilously near, if it does not coincide with, this great Pantheistic heresy. This view is, that God's power is constantly exerted in continually creating every individual thing again and again every fraction of duration; that created things have no real being of their own, and exist only as thus they are each moment the product of creative energy; and hence that the immediate cause of the state or action of any creature one moment of time is not its state or action the previous moment, but the direct act of divine creative power.

If this be so, it is plain that God is the only real agent in the universe; that he is the immediate cause of all things, including all evil passions and wicked thoughts and acts; that consciousness is a thorough delusion, and the free agency and moral accountability of man vain imaginations.

(3) The third view is the true one, and it stands intermediate between the two above stated extremes. It may be stated as follows-

(a) God gave to all substances, both material and spiritual, a real and permanent existence as entities.

(b) They really possess all such active and passive properties as God has severally endued them with.

(c) These properties have a real and not merely an apparent efficiency as second causes in producing the effects proper to them.

(d) But these created substances, although possessing a real existence exterior to God, and exerting real efficiency as causes, are not self-existent; that is, the ground of their continued existence is in God and not in them. Though not to be confounded with God, they are not to be separated from him, but "in him live and move, and have all their being."

(e) The precise nature of the exercise of divine energy whereby God interpenetrates the universe with his presence, embraces it and all things therein in his power, and upholds them in being, is not revealed, and of course is indiscoverable.

That God always continues to exert his almighty power in upholding in being and in the possession and use of their endowments all things he has made is proved-

(1) From the fact that continued dependence is inseparable from the idea of a creature. The abiding cause of the creature's continued existence must ever be in God, as it is not in itself.

(2) The relation of the creation to God cannot be analogous to that of a product of human skill to its maker. The one is exterior to his work. The intelligence and the power of the other is eternally omnipresent to every element of his work.

(3) A sense of absolute dependence for continued being, power, and blessedness, is involved in the religious consciousness of all men.

(4) It is explicitly taught in Scripture: "By him all things consist" (Col. 1:17). "He upholdeth all things by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3). "In him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28). "O bless our God...which holdeth our soul in life" (Ps. 66:8,9; 63:8; 36:6).

2. That God governs the actions of his creatures; and-

3. That his government extends to all his creatures and all their actions, is proved-

(1) By the fact that the religious nature of man demands the recognition of this truth. It is involved in the sense of dependence and of subjection to a moral government which is involved in all religious feeling, and is recognized in all religions.

(2) It is evidenced in the indications of intelligence everywhere present in the operations of external nature. The harmony, the due proportion, and the exquisite concurrence in action, which continue among so many elements throughout ceaseless changes, prove beyond question the presence of an intelligence embracing all and directing each.

(3) The same is likewise indicated in the intelligent design evidently pursued in the developments of human history during long periods and throughout vast areas, and embracing myriads of agents. "That God is in history" is a conclusion of just science as well as a dictate of true religion.

(4) The Scriptures abound in prophecies fulfilled and unfulfilled, and promises and threatenings. Many of these are not mere enunciations of general principles, but specific declarations of purpose with reference to his treatment of individuals conditioned upon their conduct. The fulfillment of these could not be left to the ordinary course of nature, since there is often no natural connection between what is threatened or promised and the conditions on which they are suspended. God must therefore, by a constant providential regulation of the system of things, execute his own word to his creatures.

(5) The Scriptures explicitly declare that such a providential control is exerted-(a) Over the physical world (i.) In general (Job 37:6-13; Ps. 104:14; 135:6,7; 147:15-18). (ii.) Individual events in the natural world, however trivial (Matt. 10:29). (b) Over fortuitous events (Job 5:6; Prov. 16:33). (c) Over the brute creation (Ps. 104:21-27; 147:9). (d) Over the general affairs of men (Job 12:23; Isa. 10:12-15; Dan. 2:21; 4:25). (e) Over the circumstances of individuals (1 Sam. 2:6-8; Prov. 16:9; James 4:13-15). (f) Over the free actions of men (Ex. 12:36; Ps. 33:14,15; Prov. 19:21; 21:1; Phil. 2:13). (g) Over the sinful actions of men (2 Sam. 16:10; Ps. 76:10; Acts 4:27,28). (h) Especially all that is good in man, in principle or action, is attributed to God's constant gracious control (Phil. 2:13; 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:9,10; Eph. 2:10; Ps. 119:36; Gal. 5:22,25).

4. That the providential control of all things by God is the consistent execution in time of his eternal and immutable purpose is evident-

(1) From the statement of the case. Since God's eternal purpose relates to and determines all that comes to pass, and since it is immutable, his providential control of all things must be in execution of his purpose. And since his purpose is infinitely wise, righteous, and benevolent, and absolutely sovereign (as shown above), his providential execution of the decree must possess the same characteristics.

(2) The same is explicitly declared in Scripture: "He worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." (Eph. 1:11; Isa. 28:29; Acts 15:18.)

5. It is evident that the chief design of God in his eternal purpose and in his works of creation must also be his chief end in all his providential dispensations. This has been shown above to be the manifestation of his own glory. It is also directly asserted as the final end of his providence. (Rom. 9:17; 11:36.)

SECTION 2: ALTHOUGH in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly;(8) yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.(9)

SECTION 3: GOD in his ordinary providence makes use of means,(10) yet is free to work without,(11) above,(12) and against them,(13) at his pleasure.

Scripture Proof Texts

(8) Acts 2:23. (9) Gen. 8:22; Jer. 31:35; Ex. 21:13; Deut. 19:5; 1 Kings 22:28,34; Isa. 10:6,7. (10) Acts 27:31,44; Isa. 55:10,11; Hos. 2:21,22. (11) Hos. 1:7; Matt. 4:4; Job 34:10. (12) Rom. 4:19-21. (13) 2 Kings 6:6; Dan. 3:27.

These sections teach the doctrine that God's purpose is efficacious and consistent, effected through means (secondary causes subject to His control), and that He possesses the power to effect His purpose directly and through His own energy.

1. That the providential control which God exercises over all his creatures and all their actions is always certainly efficacious, plainly follows (1) From his own infinite wisdom and power. (2) From the fact, before proved, that his eternal purpose determines the occurrence of all that comes to pass, and is immutable and certainly efficacious. (3) The fact is expressly declared in Scripture. (Job 23:13; Ps. 33:11; Lam. 2:17.)

2. That the manner in which God controls his creatures and their actions, and effects his purposes through them, is in every case perfectly consistent with the nature of the creature and of his mode of action, is certain-

(1) From the fact that God executes the different parts of the same eternal, self-consistent purpose, in his works of creation and providence. It is in the execution of the same unchangeable plan that God first created everything, endowed it with its properties, determined its mode of action and its mutual relations to all other things, and ever afterward continues to preserve it in the possession of its properties and to guide it in the exercise of them. As God must always be consistent to his own plan, so his mode of action upon the creatures whose existence and constitution have been determined by that plan must always be consistent with their natures and mode of action so determined.

(2) The same fact is proved by our uniform experience and observation. We are conscious of acting freely according to the law of our constitution as free agents. Even in the writings of the prophets and apostles, who wrote under the control of a specific divine influence, rendering even their selection of words infallibly accurate, we can plainly see that the spontaneous exercise of the faculties of the writers was neither superseded nor coerced. Every agent in the material and brute creations, also, is observed constantly to act, under all changing conditions, according to the uniform law of its nature.

(3) In perfect consistency with this, we see everywhere in the material world, in the lives of individual men, and in all human history, plain evidences of adjustments and combinations of elements and agents in the order of contrivance to effect purpose. This in principle is analogous to, though in many ways infinitely more perfect than, the methods by which man controls natural agents to effect his purpose. If the laws of nature and the properties of things, when imperfectly understood, can be brought subject to the providence of man, there certainly can be no difficulty in believing that they are infinitely more under the control of that God who not only understands them perfectly, but made them originally that they might subserve his purpose. It is just the perfection of God's adjustments that every event, as well as general results, are determined by his intention. Even the human soul, in the exercise of free agency, acts according to a law of its own, excluding necessity, but not excluding certainty. The springs of free action are within the soul itself. And yet, as these are modified without interfering with the liberty of the agent by the influence of other men, they certainly cannot lie beyond the control of the Infinite Intelligence who created the soul itself, and has determined all the conditions under which its character has been formed and its activities exercised.

3. That God ordinarily effects his purposes through means-that is, through the agency of second causes subject to his control-is also evident-

(1) From the fact that he originally gave them their being and properties, and adjusted their relations in the execution of these very purposes. The same design is pursued in creation and in providence. The instruments furnished and the methods of procedure inaugurated in creation must, therefore, be consistently pursued in the subsequent dispensations of providence.

(2) Universal experience and observation teach us the same fact. In ordinary providence and in the administration of a supernatural economy of grace, in the sphere of material nature and in the moral government of intelligent and responsible agents, in the government of the finished world as we find it and in all the history of the formation of the Earth and the worlds in the past, God universally accomplishes his purposes through the agency of second causes, adjusted, combined, supported, and rendered efficient, by his omnipresent Spirit for this very end.

(3) A system involving an established order of nature, and proceeding in wise adaptation of means to ends, is necessary as a means of communication between the Creator and the intelligent creation, and to accomplish the intellectual and moral education of the latter. Thus only can the divine attributes of wisdom, righteousness, or goodness, be exercised or manifested; and thus only can angel or man understand the character, anticipate the will, or intelligently and cooperate with the plan of God.

4. That God possesses the power of effecting his ends immediately, without the intervention of second causes, is self-evident; and that he at times at his sovereign pleasure exercises this power, is a matter of clear and satisfactory evidence.

(1) Since God created all second causes and endowed them with their properties, and continues to uphold them in being, that they might be the instruments of his will, all their efficiency is derived from him, and he must be able to do directly without them what he does with them, and limit, modify, or supersede them, at his pleasure.

(2) The power of God does indeed work in all the ordinary processes of nature, and his will is expressed in what is called natural law; but it does not follow that his whole power is exhausted in those processes, nor his whole will expressed in those laws. God remains infinitely greater than his works, in the execution of his eternal, immutable purposes, using the system of second causes as his constant instrument after its kind, and meanwhile manifesting his transcendent prerogatives and powers by the free exercises of his energies and utterances of his will.

(3) Occasional direct exercises of God's power in connection with a general system of means and laws appear to be necessary, not only "in the beginning" to create second causes and inaugurate their agency, but also subsequently in order to make to the subjects of his moral government the revelation of his free personality, and of his immediate interest in their affairs. At any rate such occasional direct action and revelation are certainly necessary for the education of such beings as man is in his present estate. It has been objected that miracles, or direct acts of divine power, interfering with the natural action of second causes, are inconsistent with the infinite perfections of God, since it is claimed that they indicate either a vacillation of purpose upon his part, or some insufficiency in his creation to effect completely the ends he originally intended it to accomplish. It must be remembered, however, that the eternal and immutable plan of God comprehended the miracle from the beginning as well as the ordinary course of nature. A miracle, although effected by divine power without means, is itself a means to an end and part of a plan. All natural law has its birth in the divine reason, and is an expression of will to effect a purpose. In this highest, all-comprehensive sense of the word, miracles also are according to law-they are fixed in their occurrence by God's eternal plan, and they serve definite ends as his means of communicating with and educating finite spirits. They are in no proper sense a violation of the order of nature, but only the occasional and eternally pre-calculated interpolation of a new power, the immediate energy of the divine will. The order of nature is only an instrument of the divine will, and an instrument used subserviently to that higher moral government in the interests of which miracles are wrought. Thus the order of nature and miracles, instead of being in conflict, are the intimately correlated elements of one comprehensive system.

SECTION 4: THE almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men,(14) and that not by a bare permission,(15) but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding,(16) and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends;(17) yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God; who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.(18)

Scripture Proof Texts

(14) Rom. 11:32-34; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1; 1 Kings 22:22,23; 1 Chron. 10:4,13,14; 2 Sam.16:10; Acts. 2:23; 4:27,28. (15) Acts 14:16. (16) Ps. 76:10; 2 Kings 19:28. (17) Gen. 50:20; Isa. 10:6,7,12. (18) James 1:13,14,17; 1 John 2:16.

This section makes no attempt to explain the nature of those providential actions of God which are concerned in the origin of sin in the moral universe, and in the control of the willful actions of his creatures in the execution of his purposes. It simply states the important facts with respect to the relation of his providence to the sins of his creatures which are revealed in Scripture. These points are--

1. God not only permits sinful acts, but he directs and controls them to the determination of his own purposes. Sinful actions, like all others, are declared in Scripture to occur only by God's permission, and according to his purpose, so that what men wickedly do God is said to ordain (Gen. 14:4, 5; Ex. 7:13; 14:17; Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27,28). And he constantly restrains and controls men in their sins (Ps. 76:10; 2 Kings 19:28; Isa. 10:15); and overrules their sins for good (Acts 3:13; Gen. 50:20).

2. Yet the sinfulness of these actions is only from the sinning agent, and God in no case is either the author or approver of sin. The providence of God, instead of causing sin or approving it, is constantly concerned in forbidding it by positive law, in discouraging it by threatenings and actual punishments, in restraining it and in overruling it against its own nature to good.

SECTION 5: THE most wise, righteous, and gracious God, oftentimes leaves for a season his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to make known them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;(19) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for various other just and holy ends. (20)

SECTION 6: AS for those wicked and ungodly men, whom God, as a righteous judge, for former sins, blinds and hardens,(21) from them he not only withholds his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings and wrought upon in their hearts;(22) but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had,(23) and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin;(24) and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan:(25) whereby it comes to pass, that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.(26)

SECTION 7: AS the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of his Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof.(27)

Scripture Proof Texts

(19) 2 Chron. 32:25,26,31; 2 Sam. 24:1. (20) 2 Cor. 12:7-9; Ps. 73; 77:1,10,12; Mark 14:66, to end; John 21:15-17. (21) Rom. 1:24,26,28; 11:7,8. (22) Deut. 29:4. (23) Matt. 13:12; 25:29. (24) Deut. 2:30; 2 Kings 8:12,13. (25) Ps. 81:11,12; 2 Thess. 2:10-12. (26) Ex. 7:3; 8:15,32; 2 Cor. 2:15,16; Isa. 8:14; 1 Pet. 2:7,8; Isa. 6:9,10; Acts 28:26,27. (27) 1 Tim. 4:10; Amos 9:8,9; Rom. 8:28; Isa. 43:3-5,14.

We have seen that the providential government of God, as the execution through time of his eternal and immutable purpose, forms one connected system, and comprehends all created things and all their actions. In perfect consistency with this, these sections proceed to teach:

1. That the general providence of God, embracing and dealing with every creature according to its nature, consequently, although one system, embraces several subordinate systems intimately related as parts of one whole, yet also distinct in their respective methods of administration and in the immediate ends designed. The principal of these are, the providence of God over the material universe; the general moral government of God over the intelligent universe; the moral government of God over the human family in general in this world; and the special gracious dispensation of God's providence toward his Church.

2. These sections teach also that there is a relation of subordination subsisting between these several systems of providence, as means to ends in the wider system which comprehends them all. Thus the providential government of the material universe is subordinate as a means to an end to the moral government which God exercises over his intelligent creatures, for whose residence, instruction, and development, the physical universe was created. Thus also the providential government of God over mankind in general is subordinate as a means to an end to his gracious providence toward his Church, whereby he gathers it out of every people and nation, and makes all things work together for good to those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and of course for the highest development and glory of the whole body. The history of redemption through all its dispensations, Patriarchal, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Christian, is the key to the philosophy of human history in general. The race is preserved, continents and islands are settled with inhabitants, nations are elevated to empire, philosophy and the practical arts, civilization and liberty are advanced, that the Church, the Lamb's bride, may be perfected in all her members and adorned for her Husband.

3. The moral government of God over all men, and especially his government of his Church includes also, besides an external providence ordering the outward circumstances of individuals, an internal spiritual providence, consisting of the influences of his Spirit upon their hearts. As "common grace," this spiritual influence extends to all men without exception, though in serious degrees of power, restraining the corruption of their nature, and impressing their hearts and consciences with the truths revealed in the light of nature or of revelation; and it is either exercised or judicially withheld by God at his sovereign pleasure. As "efficacious" and "saving grace," this spiritual influence extends only to the elect, and is exerted upon them at such times and in such degrees as God has determined from the beginning.

4. Hence in the way of discipline for their own good, to mortify their sins and to strengthen their graces, God often wisely and graciously, though never finally, for a season and to a degree, withdraws his spiritual influences from his own children, and "leaves them to the manifold temptations and corruptions of their own hearts."

5. Hence also God often, as a just punishment of their sins, judicially withdraws the restraints of his Spirit, and consequently whatever superficial gifts his presence may have conferred, from ungodly men, and thus leaves them to the influence of temptations, the unrestrained control of their lusts, and the power of Satan. And hence it comes to pass that the truths of the gospel and the ordinances of the Church, which are a savor of life to them to whom they are graciously blessed, become a savor of death and of increased condemnation to them who for their sins have been left to themselves.

Special thanks to Steven Luker for making this chapter available to Sola Scriptura!

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