“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28
So what is divine providence? Let’s first look at what it is not. In an article published on June 14, 2019, titled, “A Christian Understanding of Divine Providence,” by Jana M. Bennett, Ph.D, Professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, she writes:
Christian tradition suggests that if God really is who God has revealed himself to be, God’s presence is compatible with our free will and even with the fact that evil exists. First, though, it’s important to name three contemporary approaches that are distortions of Christian divine providence.
One approach denies God’s interactions (atheism). Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), a well-known contemporary atheist, dismisses any concept of God’s plan: “I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with ‘you’ in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not.”
For Hitchens, there are at least two problems with a divine plan. One is the arrogant and individualistic focus on “me.” Another is that “a god” has a plan, because “gods” are human-made attempts to hold power over others.
A second approach is called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” [More on this later]
Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have observed that many people today express beliefs such as:
“A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth”; that God basically wants people to be nice to each other; that life’s purpose is to be happy, which means feeling good about one’s self; that God is not involved with us unless God is invited to be, and that good people go to heaven.
Moralistic therapeutic deism suggests that we have maximum choices in our lives. We may even have some control over “god,” since all we need to do is call upon “god” in moments we perceive as troubling. God has no overall plan for us other than happiness.
A third approach describes God’s interactions in terms of fate.
Fate suggests we have a predetermined outcome, with few or no choices. Some of our favorite contemporary stories feature strong aspects of fate. A person might be fated to be king or to take up a difficult task that will save the world.
The ancient Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” describes Oedipus’ fate: He will kill his father and marry his mother, despite trying desperately not to do those things. Popular novels and films, including “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones,” feature fate that enables people to save the world.
The stories we tell about fate shape our sense of the degree of choice that we have. These stories indicate that it is we humans who save the world, especially if we follow our fated path.
Christian thinking assents to none of these paths. In contrast, Christians insist that God is not a mere being among others. God cannot be fully described by any object within it–including human imagination.
All time and space, the smallest atom, the largest living being, everything known and unknown, is God’s. We don’t fully know who God is, but Christians do not dismiss God simply because we cannot see or understand all of what God might be…. (Quote source here.)
Often what passes as “Christian” in our society today actually falls under what is referred to above as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which has been around since the term was first coined from a study referenced above that was conducted by interviewing over 3,000 teenagers back in the early 2000’s.
GotQuestions.org provides a detailed explanation of what the beliefs are regarding “moralistic therapeutic deism”:
The term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MDT) was first coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press). Based on extensive research, they identified the predominant beliefs of American teenagers, even those that claim to be Christians. They named the core beliefs “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or MTD. The five core beliefs of MTD are as follows:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
The beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are “moralistic” in that they place a high value on “being good” as found in #2 and #5, above. “Good” is really defined by popular culture rather than the moral imperatives of the Bible. So tolerating behaviors the Bible calls sin might be seen as “good” while calling those behaviors “sin” might be seen as intolerant or hateful, which is bad.
The beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are “therapeutic” in that the primary value is feeling good about oneself as articulated in beliefs #3 and #4, above. God’s “job” is to take care of us.
The authors used the word “deism” because, in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, God exists as the Creator, but He is relatively uninvolved (beliefs #1 and #4, above). Deists have objected to this use of the term because, in true deism, God never intervenes in human affairs. He created us, but He leaves us alone. For this reason, some have suggested that theism would be a better term. Theists believe that God exists and that He can and does intervene from time to time when needed, in answer to prayer, etc.
The most important point concerning Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, however, is not the difference between theism and deism, but how far removed from biblical truth some young people are. The beliefs of MTD are not isolated to Millennials, either. It seems that many people simply view God as a “cosmic genie,” a “divine bellhop,” or a roadside assistance mechanic—you don’t know Him or need to, but you can call Him when you are broken down and He will come and get you going again. The most important thing, according to MTD, is to be good, nice, and tolerant, and God will ultimately receive you into heaven. This view is probably held by a lot of Americans and seems to be becoming the dominant “civic religion,” which emphasizes the horizontal relationships with other people but minimizes a relationship with God. In short, MTD puts humanity at the center and, ultimately, each individual at the center of his or her own belief system.
Biblical Christians will have problems with all 5 key points of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
1. Not just “a god” exists, but the God of the Bible, who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whoever does not honor Jesus Christ as God does not honor God (see John 5:23).
2. God does not just want people to be “nice” but commands that they obey Him. He is the One who defines good and nice. He calls sin “sin” and promises to judge it (see Romans 1:18–32).
3. The central goal of life is to give glory to God. A by-product may be that we feel good about ourselves, but that is not the goal (see Romans 11:36).
4. Our primary goal as believers is to be constantly in tune with God, following His leading and in daily fellowship with Him. We are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
5. No one is good enough to go to heaven. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); no one is good enough, and that is why we need Jesus, God in the flesh. He lived the perfect life that we could not, and He died to pay for our sin so that we might be made acceptable to God. “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24).
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an official religion. Probably no one would ever identify himself as a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.” The real problem is that moralism is not Christianity, and most people who hold these beliefs are likely to identify themselves as Christians when in fact they are living to glorify themselves. (Quote source here.)
And now we return to the topic of this blog post–divine providence. The following information provides us with a definition of what divine providence is, and it also comes from GotQuestions.org:
Divine providence is the governance of God by which He, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. He is sovereign over the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of His people (Psalm 4:8). This doctrine stands in direct opposition to the idea that the universe is governed by chance or fate.
Through divine providence God accomplishes His will. To ensure that His purposes are fulfilled, God governs the affairs of men and works through the natural order of things. The laws of nature are nothing more than God’s work in the universe. The laws of nature have no inherent power; rather, they are the principles that God set in place to govern how things normally work. They are only “laws” because God decreed them.
How does divine providence relate to human volition? We know that humans have a free will, but we also know that God is sovereign. How those two truths relate to each other is hard for us to understand, but we see examples of both truths in Scripture. Saul of Tarsus was willfully persecuting the church, but, all the while, he was “kick[ing] against the goads” of God’s providence (Acts 26:14).
God hates sin and will judge sinners. God is not the author of sin, He does not tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13), and He does not condone sin. At the same time, God obviously allows a certain measure of sin. He must have a reason for allowing it, temporarily, even though He hates it.
An example of divine providence in Scripture is found in the story of Joseph. God allowed Joseph’s brothers to kidnap Joseph, sell him as a slave, and then lie to their father for years about his fate. This was wicked, and God was displeased. Yet, at the same time, all of their sin worked toward a greater good: Joseph ended up in Egypt, where he was made the prime minister. Joseph used his position to sustain the people of a broad region during a seven-year famine—including his own family. If Joseph had not been in Egypt before the famine began, millions of people, including the Israelites, would have died. How did God get Joseph to Egypt? He providentially allowed his brothers the freedom to sin. God’s divine providence is directly acknowledged in Genesis 50:15–21.
Another clear case of divine providence overriding sin is the story of Judas Iscariot. God allowed Judas to lie, deceive, cheat, steal, and finally betray the Lord Jesus into the hands of His enemies. All of this was a great wickedness, and God was displeased. Yet, at the same time, all of Judas’s plotting and scheming led to a greater good: the salvation of mankind. Jesus had to die at the hands of the Romans in order to become the sacrifice for sin. If Jesus had not been crucified, we would still be in our sins. How did God get Christ to the cross? God providentially allowed Judas the freedom to perform a series of wicked acts. Jesus plainly states this in Luke 22:22: “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”
Note that Jesus teaches both the sovereignty of God (“the Son of Man will go as it has been decreed”) and the responsibility of man (“woe to that man who betrays!”). There is a balance.
Divine providence is taught in Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” “All things” means “all things.” God is never out of control. Satan can do his worst, yet even the evil that is tearing the world apart is working toward a greater, final purpose. We can’t see it yet. But we know that God allows things for a reason and that His plan is good. It must be frustrating for Satan. No matter what he does, he finds that his plans are thwarted and something good happens in the end.
The doctrine of divine providence can be summarized this way: “God in eternity past, in the counsel of His own will, ordained everything that will happen; yet in no sense is God the author of sin; nor is human responsibility removed.” The primary means by which God accomplishes His will is through secondary causes (e.g., laws of nature and human choice). In other words, God usually works indirectly to accomplish His will.
God also sometimes works directly to accomplish His will. These works are what we call miracles. A miracle is God’s circumventing, for a short period of time, the natural order of things to accomplish His will. The blazing light that fell on Saul on the road to Damascus is an example of God’s direct intervention (Acts 9:3). The frustrating of Paul’s plans to go to Bythinia is an example of God’s indirect guiding (Acts 16:7). Both are examples of divine providence at work.
There are some who say that the concept of God directly or indirectly orchestrating all things destroys any possibility of free will. If God is in complete control, how can we be truly free in the decisions we make? In other words, for free will to be meaningful, there must be some things that lie outside of God’s sovereign control—e.g., the contingency of human choice. Let us assume for the sake of argument that this is true. What then? If God is not in complete control of all contingencies, then how could He guarantee our salvation? Paul says in Philippians 1:6 that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” If God is not in control of all things, then this promise, and all other divine promises, is in doubt. If the future does not belong completely to God, we do not have complete security that our salvation will be made complete.
Furthermore, if God is not in control of all things, then He is not sovereign, and if He is not sovereign, then He is not God. So, the price of maintaining contingencies outside of God’s control results in a belief that God is not really God. And if our free will can trump divine providence, then who ultimately is God? We are. That conclusion is unacceptable to anyone with a biblical worldview. Divine providence does not destroy our freedom. Rather, divine providence takes our freedom into account and, in the infinite wisdom of God, sets a course to fulfill God’s will. (Quote source here.)
I’ll end this post with the same verse I opened it with–Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…
Who have been called . . .
According to . . .
HIS purpose . . . .
YouTube Video: “Intentional” by Travis Greene: