Providence and grace

Back in the mid to late 80s (it must have been) I read an article by Carine Mackenzie in the FP Young People’s Magazine. She wrote about taking the family dog to the vet because of some illness. As far as I remember, the dog was distressed about being at the vet and having an injection (or whatever treatment it was), and so they longed to be able to comfort their beloved family pet by explaining what was going on and how this experience, even though it was upsetting, was really the only way to get better.

But if they’d tried to explain, how could the dog have processed the information? Its only hope was to accept what was happening because the vet knew what she was doing and was acting in its best interests.

The point of the story was to illustrate how incapable we are of understanding everything that happens to us in providence. Often we can only respond with perplexity and distress to the things that happen to us. Then our only hope is the fact that the Lord is good, he knows what he is doing, and it is not only for his glory but also for the good of his people.

The effect of this article, for me and hopefully others, was not only to give me an abiding affection for Carine Mackenzie and her ilk, but also to provide a basic framework for understanding providence. I can’t have been older than 8 when I read it.

And of course, over time, some more things about providence have swum into clearer focus. In particular these two.

1. Providence is not a mark of grace

To hear some people talk, the mere fact that unexpected things have happened to you in providence is a sign that the Lord has saved you. It is an integral part of some people’s testimony, or account of their call by grace, that certain events happened in their lives with certain details in certain circumstances and it was all very remarkable.

This is, unfortunately, a fallacy. Time and chance happen to us all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) If you were to write the biography of any single individual on the planet, it would be full of unexpected events and remarkable deliverances. Nobody, Christian or not, could have predicted five years ago where they would find themselves today. The fact that things have turned out better for you than you feared, or that you have learned some things the hard way, is no sign of grace. It is simply your own personal version of a universal reality, an experience shared by every other human being who has ever lived.

This is not to deny that when the Lord does save people, he does so in a way that interweaves his supernatural grace with the very specific, concrete, natural facts he has ordained for their lives. You were born to these godly parents and grew up under that pastor’s faithful preaching and your job created those opportunities to consider the truths of the gospel, and so on. Providence and grace are inextricably linked for every one of the Lord’s people, because grace reaches us in exactly the situation we’re in.

But when the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, we have to understand his work in theological terms, far more than in providential terms. It’s not so much that he sends this affliction into our lives or brings about that deliverance in our circumstances, but that he convinces us of our sin in the light of God’s holy law, enlightens our minds in the knowledge of Christ and his salvation, renews our wills to incline us to wisdom’s ways, and enables us to believe and repent.

If someone’s testimony majors on their personal life events, while leaving big gaps where they could have talked about their grasp of the mercy of God in Christ, then, assuming they really are saved, their account of what the Lord has done for them is sadly defective when it comes to giving him the glory that is due to his name.

Of course believers should acknowledge what God does in providence. But the God of providence works marvellous things in the lives of the most hardened reprobates. Marvellous providences are not a distinguishing feature of the believer. To believers alone he makes himself known as God the Lord, who keeps covenant and mercy, and that’s what people’s call by grace is really all about.

The other side of the coin from this is of course that when dramatic things have not happened in someone’s life where they can discern the hand of the Lord manifestly working, this is not a sign that they have no grace. Far more important than remarkable stories is evidences of the new birth – trust in Christ, love for the Lord, grief over sin, prayerfulness, and willingness to walk in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

2. Providence is not a means of grace

Perhaps it overstates the case to say that providence is not a means of grace. The Lord does use events and circumstances to further his people’s growth in grace. His goodness in everyday things should lead us to repentance. The difficult things he sends (illness, bereavement, relationship breakdowns, financial hardship) should nudge us to cling closer to him and less tightly to our sins and our secondary supports. Believers towards the end of their lives have grown in grace in ways that can sometimes be easily connected to events that happened in their personal providences. 

But granting all of this, it is still missing the point to treat providence as a means of grace. For two reasons. 

a) Nothing we learn from providence is not already more clearly expressed in Scripture 

Providence itself is not sufficient to inform us of what repentance is, what faith is, or what sin is. How could it? Whether you study the rise and fall of empires, or the life cycle of a gnat, you would never get a hint of how the Lord answers the request of his disciples, ‘Increase our faith.’ Study any conceivable sub-discipline of epidemiology or meteorology or criminology or sociology to the highest possible levels of expertise, and you will still be none the wiser how to follow the apostle’s direction, ‘Grow in grace.’ Drill down as detailed as you like into the chains of causes and effects and the webs of events and their interactions in your own life, and you will never know whether or not ‘ye be in the faith.’ It is not the job of providence to explain these things. For this, we need Scripture. 

Also, providence is not self-interpreting. Events do not come with a label attached to explain their purpose. When a problem arises, for example, you can’t automatically tell whether it is a rebuke (because you’re walking the wrong way and need to change course), or a test of resolve (something you need to persevere in spite of, as you walk in the path of obedience). Your walk needs to be judged by the Word, not by providences. 

Providence may well be a nudge from the Lord to remind us of something we should already know (from Scripture). But it is not providence itself that informs us. It is not providence that explains things to us. Too much of providence is completely inexplicable and impenetrably mysterious – not because we aren’t working hard enough to make sense of it, but because it is inherently beyond our grasp. Our questions should be directed to the Word. Our search for explanations should take place in the Word. If we want to grow in grace, we need to study the Word, far more than our providences. 

It is a big, perplexing, hindrancing mistake to think that if we are going to grow in grace we need to understand what the Lord is doing in our providences. We may never know what he is doing, now or even much further down the line. We may never know why we needed to have toothache at that particular time or why that particular train was cancelled – or the reason for that bereavement or losing that job or having that serious accident. 

But we do not need to understand what the Lord is doing in order to be convinced that he is doing everything exactly right and in order to push our sins further away and cling closer to him. That conviction, and the certainty of the rightness of that response, comes from Scripture, our unfailingly clear guide to the Lord’s character and purpose, and not from providence, where the Lord’s way is in the great waters and his footsteps are not known. 

b) Nothing that happens in providence gives the believer any grace they didn’t already have

No amount of providential blessing is enough to make a sinner thank the Lord for his pardoning mercy in Christ Jesus. No amount of providential hardship is enough to make a sinner turn from their sin to the Lord in penitence and faith. Grace in the heart of a sinner only ever comes from the Holy Spirit planting it there. The faith he gifts is a response to Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). The repentance he gifts is a response to the mercy of God in Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). 

So when a believer encounters a fiery trial and eventually emerges from it like gold, it is not the hardship itself that does them good. This is obvious because sometimes, when a trial comes, the believer makes a bad use of it. They take it as a reason to complain, to overlook the Lord’s kindness, to lash out at their loved ones, to look for a solution in creature comforts, and in general to distrust God. This is because trials are essentially evils. Good does not come from the evil itself. If any good comes from it, it is because the Lord is using it to bring the believer to make a good use of it. 

The role of providence in someone’s life is to expose, or reveal, the reality of what’s in their heart. Trials don’t give repentance, or meekness, or thankfulness. They can only make it clear whether someone is a penitent, or meek, or thankful person. They remove the dross, not to make the underlying substance into gold, but to demonstrate that it really is gold.

Far more effective as helps to growing in grace are the ordinances which the Lord has explicitly given for that purpose – especially the reading and hearing of the Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and prayer.

Delving deeper into the Word, hearing it expounded from the pulpit, walking in the light of your baptism, feeding regularly on Christ in the supper, and pleading with the Lord for mercy for Christ’s sake – these are the activities which strengthen the believer’s graces. They grow in love, joy, peace, long suffering (etc) as they participate in activities like these. 

Then, it doesn’t really matter whether providentially they spend their lives lurching from one crisis to the next, snatched from the lion’s paw one moment and like a brand from the burning the next, or whether they plod along unremarkably and insignificantly from week to week and year after year. Spiritually, i.e., far more importantly, their stability comes from the immutability of the love of their Saviour, and the highlights of their lives come from new breakthroughs of light from the truth of the Word.

Conclusion: our circumstances are measured out by the God of all grace

Undoubtedly, in the experience of any believer, it may well be in the midst or in the upshot of some providential situation that some aspect of the truth can become precious, standing out with stark clarity and warm comfort precisely as it meets them in their situation. That is because the God of providence is the God of grace. But the truth and its preciousness remain true and precious irrespective of our situations in providence, and certainly irrespective of our comprehension of our providence. We can leave ourselves safely in the Lord’s care, whether or not we understand what’s happening. That is because God’s grace includes God’s providence, and surpasses it, since ‘over all his other works his tender mercies are.’ (Psalm 145:9)