1. God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were Created; according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. (Hebrews 1:3; Job 38:11; Isaiah 46:10, 11; Psalms 135:6; Matthew 10:29-31; Ephesians 1:11)
We now move to the second way God executes his decree—the works of providence. God’s providence is a topic of deep theological significance that can bring great comfort. This chapter explains how God carries out his decrees in the world and in our lives. Many perplexing issues are wonderfully resolved in this chapter as the consistency and depth of Scripture is explained. Edward Morris affirms of this chapter: “No definition of providence so exact and so comprehensive as this can be found elsewhere in Protestant symbolism.”  We will be studying, then, the subject of God’s providence under the tutelage of a thorough and thoughtful body of doctrine—one of the best in all of Christendom.
What is providence? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: 1) the action of providing; provision, preparation, arrangement; chiefly in the phrase to make providence; to make provision. 2) Foresight, prevision; anticipation of and preparation for the future; timely care; hence prudent or wise arrangement, management government or guidance. In these definitions, the key concepts are: supervision, prevision and provision. While the dictionary provides us with a general meaning of providence, it is not necessarily theological. The Baptist Catechism question 14 provides a succinct theological definition. Providence is “[God’s] most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” John Calvin said in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “At the outset, then, let my readers grasp that providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events.” A. A. Hodge declares: “His providential control is in all respects the consistent execution of his eternal, immutable and sovereign purpose.” Thomas Watson states: “God’s decree ordains things that shall fall out, God’s providence orders them.” There are essentially two complimentary perspectives to be seen in these statements about providence. Providence is the way God carries out his decrees, and providence is God’s provision and care for creation; these are two sides of the same coin.
From these above definitions we also observe that God is personally involved in providence. God does not issue decrees and carry them out by some cold, metallic, mechanical process. No, by providence God himself orders the way his decrees are carried out. Ephesians 1:11b declares of God’s decree that it is “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (ESV). Providence is personal! Watson said: “Of the work of God’s providence Christ says, “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.” John v 17. God rested from works of creation, he does not create any new species of things. “He rested from all His works;” Gen ii 2; and therefore it must needs be meant of his works of providence: “My Father worketh and I work.” The Triune Godhead is personally working by providence. What wonder and comfort this brings to those who belong to God.
Let’s now begin to look at the full theological definition of providence found in paragraph 1. It begins: God the good Creator of all things. Since God is good, it follows that both his creation and providence are also good. If God was not “good” we would find ourselves in the same situation as the ancient Grecians whose gods— likened to men — were wickedly self-serving, unreliably changeable—according to their whims. To live under the so-called providence of the Grecian gods, as they imagined them, would be a fearful thing. But our good God is the good Creator of all things, and as such we find he is loving, just and merciful. A.A. Hodge says: “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…, his providential execution of the decree must possess the same characteristics.” The doctrine of providence is a reflection of God’s character.
The 1689 Confession continues: in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern. God’s execution of his decree through providence flows from his infinite power. In the book of Job, the question is asked: “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? 8 It is higher than heaven —what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know? 9 Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9 ESV). We see the answer to these two questions is a definitive, no! There is no limit to the almighty; he is infinite in power and wisdom. God’s effects his decree by providence through his infinite wisdom. Scripture states: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28 ESV). God’s understanding (i.e. wisdom) is unsearchable (i.e. infinite). God, by his providence, orders all things by his infinite power and wisdom. But what specifically does God do by providence? He upholds, directs, disposes and governs all things. We will look individually at each of these actions.
God upholds all things. Scripture declares: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 ESV). Also, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3 ESV). God directs all things. Scripture declares: “Daniel answered and said: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. 21 He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding”” (Daniel 2:20-21 ESV). Here we see God as the director of time and seasons, and the one who removes those in political power and/or replaces them. God does this by his power and wisdom. God as director is not running around reacting to events as they occur—as the open-theist asserts; rather God is directing; everything else responds. God disposes all things. This does not mean God “throws away,” but that he carries out. God accomplishes all things—things he has ordained. God governs all things. The Bible indicates: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:24-26 ESV). Also, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Is. 9:6-7 ESV). These passages demonstrate God’s sovereign rule and government over creation. These four words: uphold, direct, dispose, and govern cover the entire scope of God’s providence.
The Confession indicates that these actions are directed towards: all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least. We ought to notice that there is a range of classification: greatest and least. This is a ranking of all creatures and all things. For example, we might see this greatest to least of creatures as: archangels, angels, mankind, animals, and plants, down to the smallest micro-organism. If we look at the realm of things (i.e. non-living matter), we might see the greatest to the least: the universe, solar systems, stars, planets, oceans, mountains, rocks, all the way down to atoms. We could also understand things to be providence’s ordering the big events in world history, such as the world wide flood, world wars, all the way down to the most minuscule of things in life. As cited in an earlier chapter, R.C. Sproul rightly observes that there are no maverick molecules roaming the universe. Each and every one is under the providence of God. Ezekiel Hopkins, a Puritan, writes: “Hence we can learn that God governs the meanest, the most inconsiderable, and contemptible occurrences in the world by an exact and particular providence. Do you see [a] thousand little motes and atoms wandering up and down in a sun-beam? It is God that so peoples [populates] it; and he guides their innumerable and irregular strayings.” Jesus said that the Father’s providential care extends from mankind, the greatest earthly creature, down to the lowliest of creatures (birds): “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt. 6:25-26 ESV). As well, Jesus said: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Mt. 10:29 ESV).
We know from earlier statements in the Confession that God governs by his infinite power and wisdom, but in what way does he do it? The Confession affirms: “by his most wise and holy providence.” God’s wisdom is far higher than any wisdom his creatures might possess, and thus God’s wisdom applied to providence is most wise. We can be certain that the most difficult things in our lives are under his most wise providence. Consider the incomprehensible details involved in directing creation (all creatures and things). Clearly, God’s infinite wisdom is required. Can you imagine what the divine providence flow-chart might look like? Further, his providence is most holy. God’s providence is holy in an ethical and moral sense. God does not violate his holy character in any of the ways he executes his decrees. Thus, even in very dark providences, God is holy—morally perfect. He cannot be rightly accused of being unholy in any providence.
God’s providence works to the end for the which they were Created. God’s providential dealing with all created things is according to their design, purpose and nature. Both Scripture and observation demonstrate this to be true. “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4 ESV). God has made things in a certain way, and he has done so that they may carry out his purposes. God has a purpose and order for the hierarchy of creation and its creatures, and by his ordinary providence all these things function within that design. The moon has its multipurpose function of reflecting light onto the earth, keeping the earth in its designated orbit, and creating marine tides. We observe in ecosystems that each species has its designed function within that system so as to bring about its designed environment. Each creature has its unique function and purposes. Ordinarily, God’s providence uses all things within that order, and he does not cause creation to function outside of its design and nature. If God has decreed A, then he will use creatures or things that can carry out A within their created design and function. There are exceptions, however, such as the time Balaam’s donkey spoke to him. In that case, the donkey functioned in a supernatural mode (i.e. supra-natural; above nature). It was outside of, and above, the donkey’s nature to do so. Ordinarily, we would expect God send a human prophet or an angel with the natural ability to speak words. We will touch on this topic again in Paragraph 3 when the Confession addresses exceptions to God’s ordinary providence.
The Confession testifies that God’s providence is according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will. God’s providence (his upholding, directing, disposing, and governing creation) works according to (or by) God’s infallible foreknowledge. God does not look into the future in order to make plans and anticipate the need; rather, God fore-orders (foreordains) the future and providence assures the decree comes about. Foreknowledge means God’s foreordaining, as discussed in chapter 3. Providence is also according to the free and immutable counsel of his own will. God’s providence is the outflow of God’s unchangeable will. All of this is to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. The result is that God’s providence shows forth God’s glory, specifically through the display of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. Specifically these listed attributes of God are displayed through God’s providence.
This paragraph has indeed provided us with a comprehensive definition of providence, and the remaining paragraphs will serve to clarify and expand it.
2. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and Decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (Acts 2:23; Proverbs 16:33; Genesis 8:22)
The Confession declares: Although in relation to the foreknowledge and Decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence. This teaches, in the words of A. A. Hodge, “that as the execution of an eternal and sovereign purpose, God’s providential control is in the case of every being and event certainly efficacious.” It is not only that the decree of God causes all things, but that through providence they come to pass unchangeably and unfailingly; God’s decree never alters course (i.e. immutable), and is always fulfilled the way God determines without fail (i.e. infallibly).
What is meant by the first cause? In order to answer that question satisfactorily, we will need to do some grammatical analysis. First, let’s evaluate the context. The phrase ‘first cause’ is best understood in the context of the phrase ‘second causes’ used later in the same paragraph. The ‘first cause’ is distinct from second causes—one is first, and the other after it—second. As we will see, God’s decrees are the first cause, and the means God orders to execute those decrees are ‘second causes.’ We will discuss that momentarily. The phrase ‘first cause’ functions in its sentence as an appositive phrase. An appositive phrase—often separated in a sentence by commas—follows either a noun or phrase, providing additional information about the noun or phrase. By this grammatical rule, the appositive phrase (e.g. ‘first cause’) refers either to the preceding noun ‘God,’ or to the larger phrase the ‘Decrees of God.’ Do we need to decide between the two—‘God’ and the ‘Decree of God?’ The two are so closely related that such a strict distinction is unnecessary; however, looking at the overall context, it is reasonable for clarity sake to infer that the ‘first cause’ specifically refers to God’s decree.
We still have not exactly explained what is meant by the phrase ‘first cause.’ The cause of all that happens is God’s decree, and for that reason the decree of God is called the first cause. It is the first cause in the sense that it is the ultimate cause coming first chronologically. Since God’s decree is the ultimate cause of all that happens, and since there is nothing behind or before it in terms of contributory causes it is the first and ultimate cause. But there are also other causes (i.e. secondary causes) after it which execute that decree. God’s decree is not ordinarily executed by simple cause and effect. Ordinarily, God’s decree comes to pass by means. These means are referred to as second causes; they are the means or causes that execute the decree, but they are not the ultimate cause. The ultimate cause belongs to God’s decree which not only determines the end, but also ordains the means (secondary causes) to get there. In some ways, we are getting ahead of ourselves, but it is difficult to explain the ‘first cause’ without at least introducing ‘second causes.’
In the graphic below (Figure 1), we see a model representing what we have covered thus far, though for the moment second causes are excluded. I will seek to show the Confession’s model of God’s decrees and their execution using a graphic model; this model will expand as we continue through paragraph 2. Figure 1 represents God’s decree (the first cause) executed or carried out by God’s providence.
As a result of the foreknowledge of God (foreordination) and decree of God, the Confession says there is not anything [that] befalls any by chance, or without his providence. The Confession covers all of creation—everything and everyone. Providence ruling over all things excludes chance. What is chance? It is something that happens which has no reason, design, and order—something outside or without God. Chance is an atheist. The Christian, however, is not an atheist and God truly rules every part of the universe. As such, the Christian should be thoughtful about their use of words like “chance,” “fate,” and “fortune” in a world that uses such words to suppress the truth. Since God’s providence orders all things, chance has no place in God’s cosmos.
The Confession then adds: yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes. By, or through, providence God himself orders the way his decrees fall out, and they usually fall out according to the nature of second causes. As previously mentioned, a second cause refers to the way or the means by which God’s decree is fulfilled (i.e. falls out). In Figure 2 then, we add the concept of ‘second causes.’ Looking at the first box in our model (i.e. God’s decrees) and moving to the right, we see that each component is moving towards the completion of the decree.
Perhaps a practical example of this model will serve us well at this juncture. Let’s say that God decreed in eternity that on May 12, 2015, John Smith was to die. And, as expected, when May 12, 2015 arrived John Smith died. This is simple enough and very plain: God decreed it and it happened—simple cause and effect. But this does not deal with any of the details which brought about this decree. John Smith did not just die; there were causes that led to his death—causes secondary to the decree. These causes follow the decree logically and chronologically (secondarily), being themselves ordered (foreordained) by God. Here are the causes of Smith’s death—causes that fell out secondarily to God’s decree: On May 12, 2015, John Smith was driving his vehicle down highway 87 at 2:07pm, when a tree fell on the roadway, and his vehicle struck it; John was killed instantly. As it turns out, the tree fell on the roadway because three years earlier there was a thunderstorm; lightning struck the tree causing the tree to die. The tree then naturally started to rot until it finally—three years later—fell over onto the roadway exactly on May 12, 2015, at 2:07pm. Upon learning the causes which led to John’s death, his loved ones were overcome with a sense that John’s death was the result of meaningless fate and random chance.
Theologically, however, these events are explained as follows: by God’s decree in eternity John Smith was to die May 12, 2015, at 2:07pm; that decree was carried out by God’s providence (Figure 1). By that same providence, God had ordered the second causes (Figure 2) which began three years earlier. Figure 3 shows how each aspect of John Smith’s death lines up with our model.
If one were to look at the facts of John Smith’s death, it might indeed appear as though a series of chance events led to his death, but the Bible instructs John’s family to see that there is nothing random, fatalistic or impersonal regarding what happened. Whether this is a comfort to John’s family or not, depends upon whether they have the faith to see these truths.
As a point of clarification, it might seem logical to consider that the thunderstorm which led to the lightning was a second cause, the lightning that led to the death of the tree as the third cause, the tree’s death that led to the its rotting as a fourth cause, and the rot that led to the tree falling as the fifth cause, but the Confession refers to all of these by the category called ‘second causes.’ Regardless of how far each cause is from the beginning second cause, each is called a second cause. And so, whether by providence God orders just one second cause which brings about God’s decree, or whether God orders a whole series of second causes to bring about the decree, each individual cause is classified as a second cause. Each second cause is by providence God-ordered, even if the second cause is contingent upon many that precede it.
Our model is not yet complete, and so we press on. God ordinarily uses means (i.e. second causes) to bring about his decrees, but these second causes have certain characteristics. The Confession asserts that by providence God orders all things to fall out according to the nature of second causes. This means that second causes are used in a way that is consistent with its nature or characteristic. A second cause will fall into three possible categories depending on it nature or character. Edward Morris writes: “This divine activity in and through such second causes is described as working necessarily, freely, or contingently; in other words, in full accordance with the nature of these causes respectively.” A.A. Hodge states of this paragraph: “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 action.” In God’s infinite wisdom and power he made creation and its creatures for the very purpose of carrying out his decree, and thus it is consistent that God uses them according to the way he designed them. We can see this in two ways. One, God will not use a second cause to do something beyond its design. A dog will not function as only a human being can, and a human will not do, say, what only a volcano can do. All causes function within their design. Two, of all the various ways to classify the natures of second causes, whether that is something in nature, a complex free-agent human, or causes which rely upon others, all causes have a nature that can be classified into three categories. Morris affirms: “And the Symbols teach that in each of these three spheres providence works equally, though by diversified methods and agencies, but always works supremely, and in perfect wisdom and righteousness as well as with an infinite potency.” Let’s then discuss each nature of second causes.
The nature of second causes classified as necessarily has to do with the fixed laws of nature. Robert Shaw writes: “Every part of the material world has an immediate dependence on the will and power of God, in respect of every motion and operation, as well as in respect of continued existence; but he governs the material world by certain physical laws,—commonly called the laws of nature, and in Scripture the ordinances of Heaven,—and agreeably to these laws, so far as relates to second causes, certain effects uniformly and necessarily follow certain causes.” Morris says: “The active agencies of nature, for example, work under necessity,—without intelligence or volition of their own, and without choice or even knowledge of the results toward which they are working. The entire sphere and operations of physical creation come under this law of material necessity; in other words, that creation is a vast mechanism, moving on by forces above itself toward issues not chosen by itself, under the irresistible guidance of him who made it.”
Part of Morris’ point here is that second causes that fall out necessarily are not to be seen in a deistic way, as if nature were some mechanical devise that had no need of God to direct it. The fixity in nature is established by God himself, and he intentionally designed it as a means to bring about his decrees, yet this does not infer deism; God is not absent from his creation; just because he uses it according to its design, does not mean he is not personally directing it. It may appear to us that fixity in design is mechanical and impersonal, but in fact it is not. By personal providence God causes all things to fall out.  In Puritan Theology, Beeke and Jones write: “How does God’s providence relate to the laws of nature? According to Ames, the order we observe in the world, “the law of nature,” is evidence of the continuing power of God’s Word over creation (Jer. 31:35-36; 33:20). God’s active presence is also required to sustain the world and its inhabitants. Sedgwick noted that the Bible specifically speaks of Christ’s “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). God works through ordinary means such as provision of food, rain, and clothing (Pss. 136:25; 147:8-9; Matt. 6:30, 32). But He is the one whose work it is, however it is accomplished.” In our above example, the thunderstorm necessarily led to the lightning; the lightning strike necessarily led to the tree dying; the tree dying necessarily led to the tree rotting.
Freely is the classification that has to do with second causes involving free agency. Shaw writes: “The providence of God is also concerned about the volitions and actions of intelligent creatures; but his providential influence is not destructive of their rational liberty, for they are under no compulsion, but act freely; and all the liberty which can belong to rational creatures is that of acting according to their inclinations.” Morris affirms: “But in the sphere and realm of humanity, God causeth things to fall out freely rather than necessarily, —according, in other words, to the constitution of the human will viewed as a second cause, having an inherent capacity for free action, and according to the principles incorporated in his moral as distinct from the material system of things. While the will of man is itself not a first but a second cause, and as such must be empowered even in its freest or wildest activities by God himself as the first cause, yet he hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty (IX: i) that it is neither forced nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil. Here a clear distinction is made between second causes working necessarily in nature, and the will as a second cause of a peculiar class, working freely in a region above nature—the region of moral life and action.”
How does God direct men or women according to his providence without violating their free agency? John Owen indicates that “testimonies are everywhere obvious in Scripture, of the stirring up of men’s wills and minds, of bending and inclining them to divers things, of the governing of the secret thoughts and motions of the heart, as cannot by any means be referred to as a naked permission, with a government of external actions, or to general influence, whereby they should have the power to do this or that, or anything else; wherein as some suppose, his whole providence consisteth. In our example of John Smith’s death, he freely determined to get in his vehicle and drive down highway 87 at that precise time. God’s providence was directing and governing John to take the action he did, but John still acted freely. While John acted freely, John was not an autonomous free-agent (i.e. free agency undeterred or influenced by God). We recognize God has given free agency to man, but God still governs “the secret thoughts and motions of the heart,” and thus the claim by Arminianism that man is a free-autonomous creature is greatly over stated and in error. We will address free agency in more detail in chapter 9, Of Free Will.
Contingently is that nature of second causes dependent upon other cause. Shaw helpfully writes: “Though there is no event contingent with respect to God, “who declareth the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things which are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure;” yet many events are contingent or accidental with regard to us, and also with respect to second causes.” It is self-evident that many causes of the secondary class depend upon other second causes in order to come about. But even with contingent second causes—each dependent upon each other—each is ordered by God’s providence. Providence is not absent even in this category.
Morris mentions another aspect to consider regarding this class: “those (really belonging to the second class) which induce results such as God could have chosen only in the way of permission, and such as he must powerfully bound if he does not altogether prevent them.” In other words, those free agents which typically belong to the ‘freely’ class are often used as sinful second causes—sinful actions which God did not author or approve but permitted for his own purpose. These second causes are contingent upon the sinful actions of his creatures. Consider the sinful action of Joseph’s brothers—an action which God did not author or approve, but second causes nonetheless—used to bring about his decree. In the words of Joseph: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20 ESV). Consider also this passage: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23 ESV). Clearly, lawless men were the contingent cause of Christ’s crucifixion—a second cause of a contingent nature—but God’s predetermined plan (his decree) and his foreknowledge (foreordination) was the first cause. Men are still responsible since they freely chose to act sinfully; just because God makes use of sinful actions does not mean the sinful actions go unpunished.
Morris brings further clarity to contingent classed causes: “The conception of second causes working neither necessarily nor freely, but contingently, is doubtless brought in to provide for an explanation of the introduction and permission of sin. While nothing can be viewed as accidental in the divine administration,—while even sin is said to be on the one side permitted by God, but on the other side powerfully bounded and held in check by him, yet the Symbols carefully deny that God either is or can be the author or approver of sin; the incoming of that dire calamity being in some true sense contingent in his scheme —contingent, but not fortuitous or irresistible in his sight. It is said with justice, that there is no contingent event or issue with God; yet in his Word he often seems to make events turn on specified contingencies, and even his decree respecting the irruption of sin into our world must be viewed as dependent upon an abuse of human liberty and choice which he neither ordained nor approved, in any full sense of these words. Contingency clearly implies something more than possibility: it implies both a foreknowledge of the event contingently introduced, and a certain measure of causal force with respect to it. But this causal force differs radically from that which regulates the procession of the seasons, and also from that which directs and aids a soul in the pathway of holiness,—God seeming in his sovereignty to stand aside and suffer the human will as a second cause to work out results which he never created it to produce, and for whose production he holds it to a strict accountability before him.”
Paragraph 4 further addresses God’s providence over the fall and the sinful actions of his creatures, and so I will not comment further here. Our model then, in its complete form, looks like Figure 4:
In our illustration of John Smith’s death, the tree falling was contingent upon the tree rotting, and the rotting was contingent upon the tree’s death by lightning, and the lightning was contingent upon the thunderstorm. Each second cause strung together by providence brought about God’s decree.
Morris sums up all three classes this way: “Providence is thus presented as one vast scheme in which a multitude of subordinate forces and activities are apparent, each working out its specific class of results in harmony with its own nature, while all combine in the furtherance of the one comprehensive issue preconceived.” The Confession does not provide a simplistic cause and effect model rather it provides a biblically complete answer—one that is sophisticated. This biblical model provides a great deal of comfort, particularly when things happen that seem random—a matter of chance. Sometimes the cause that leads to a tragic accident seems so miniscule or even incidental. God might even seem absent because it is so small. Maybe the airline mechanic forgot to tighten a bolt exactly as specified which led to a fatal airplane crash. We can recite and imagine a thousand examples of seemingly insignificant second causes which lead to very significant events. These things can lead to a crisis of faith, but if our theology is biblical, we can see that there are no miniscule incidentals with God. His providence is over even the least second cause, and is even over the most sinful action of man—things which meant for evil, but God meant for good (Gen. 50:20; Rm. 8:28). The holy and just God orders it all by his good and loving providence; both happy providence and dark.
3. God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure. (Acts 27:31, 44; Isaiah 55:10, 11; Hosea 1:7; Romans 4:19-21; Daniel 3:27)
It is fitting that this paragraph follows the preceding one. It serves to show that while it is true that the usual workings of God are by his ordinary providence—God ordering second causes to bring about his decretal will—there are nonetheless exceptions. Those exceptions are described as without means, above means, or against means. A.A. Hodge declares, “That God possesses the power of effecting his end 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.” Further, Hodge indicates that: “The power of God does indeed work in all ordinary processes of nature, and his will is expressed in what is called natural law; but it does not follow that whole power is exhausted in those processes, nor his whole will expressed in those laws. God remains infinitely greater that his works, in the execution of his eternal, immutable purposes, using the system of second causes as his constant instrument after it kind, and meanwhile manifesting his transcendent prerogatives and powers by the free exercise of his energies and utterances of his will.”
There are many examples of exceptions to ordinary providence found in Scripture. The virgin birth of Christ is an example of without means. God worked without means of sexual relations as the means of conception. “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God” (Luke 1:35 ESV). God uses the supernatural to by pass ordinary means. Above means refers to God’s use of the supernatural (i.e. supra-natural) to go above or beyond the nature of a second cause. For example, the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. Here God does still uses means, but he goes above the ordinary means. Sarah still conceived through sexual relations with Abraham, but God supernaturally caused her to conceive despite her barren state and age. “And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen 17:15-19 ESV). Against means refers to God’s working against the designed function of a second cause. For example, God went against his ordinary means of gravity and caused an axe head to float on water. “But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. 7 And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took It” (2 Kings 6:5-7 ESV).
Ordinary providence makes use of means (i.e. second causes), but if God should choose to work without, above or against those ordinary providential means, he is free to do so. This paragraph shows that the Reformed model of providence is not anti-supernatural, nor deistic. God is still most free to work supernaturally beyond ordinary providence, and he has not walked away leaving creation to function purely by the laws of nature. His providence is everywhere, it is personal, and it is not bound by the fixed laws of nature. God freely presides over creation holding all things together by the word of his power.
4. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate Counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their actsproceedeth only from the Creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (Romans 11:32-34; 2 Samuel 24:1, 1 Chronicles 21:1; 2 Kings 19:28; Psalms 76;10; Genesis 1:20; Isaiah 10:6, 7, 12; Psalms 1:21; 1 John 2:16)
The Confession affirms: The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate Counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men. As we may recall, the Confession said in paragraph 1 that “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things.” We see much of paragraph 1 reiterated here, but it is now applied even to the fall and to all sinful actions of angels and men. God’s determinate counsel extends that far—providence executing that counsel—even over such sinful actions. This is quite a statement—one likely to invoke strong opposition by many. However, what are the alternatives? Either God is sovereign over all things, including the fall and the sinful actions of angels and men, or he is not at all.
God’s sovereignty and providence over the sinful actions of creatures is not by a bare permission. In other words, God’s rule over the sinful actions of angels and men does not permit them to act sinfully in an unrestricted or completely open-ended manner (i.e. by bare permission), as if God had given angels and men autonomous free agency. It is true God has given free agency to angels and men, but it is not autonomous. Even the sinful actions of free agent creatures are subject to God’s decree and providence. Thus those who believe that God has given his free agents bare permission—unrestricted free-will to do as they like—fail to recognize that God’s sovereign decree and providence rules even over sinful actions. The fact that sin does happen means God has permitted it—though not a bare permission, but then what kind of permission is it?
Providence over sinful actions most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends. His wisdom and power characterize the way he goes about bounding, ordering, and governing. This permission varies in degree according to God’s purposes. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the permission God gives is not to be understood as permission for a creature to sin without culpability, rather it refers to God’s purpose allowing the creature to sin. Later we will see that God is in no way authoring, that is, creating sin or making someone sin. Providence gives permission for sinful actions, but places bounds (limits) on them. The permission of sin is ordered, meaning it has structure and direction regarding the actions of sinful men and angels. Providence permits sinful actions, but they are governed, meaning, this permission has a rule over this permission. Sinful actions belong to the creature alone, but at the same God bounds, orders and governs it. This limited permission is applicable to angels and men. Satan had to get permission before he could touch Job. Satan did not have bare permission? No, he was given certain bounds he could not cross. Balaam was restricted in the sinful purpose for which was determined. “But God’s anger was kindled because he [Balaam] went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary” (Num. 22:22 ESV). A.A. Hodge affirms: “God not only permits sinful acts, but he directs and controls them to the determination of his own purposes.” Providence is perhaps more active in restraining sin than permitting it. Providence restrains sin even in its permission—all for his glory and a greater good!
God bounds, orders, and governs the sinful actions of free agents in a manifold dispensation. God’s permission is given in various ways at different times. What permits one place he restrains in another. What restrains are increased in one period, may be permitted in another. All of this, God does to his most holy ends. R.C. Sproul writes: “Yet the fact that evil exists in a universe governed by a perfectly holy God must mean that he has good purpose in mind. We see this in God’s answer to the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers: the brothers meant their deed for evil, and it was terribly evil, but God meant it for good and brought much good out of it.” Thomas Watson said it well: “God permitted their sin, which he never would, if he could not bring good out of it.” Paul Helm maintains: “God could have created men and women who freely…did only what was morally right,” God did not for an important reason: “that out of evil a greater good would come, a good that could not have come, or could not have been as great, if there had not been evil.” Thus, we again see the greater good argument. God’s ends are holy; God remains holy even in the means he uses to his ends.
This brings us to our next portion of the Confession: yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the Creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. This was already hinted at in the first part of the paragraph where it indicated the sinful actions were of angels and men. Here it is stated plainly. In God’s providence over sin, the sinfulness proceeds only from the creature (see Rm. 9:14; Jm. 1:13-15, 17; 1 Jn. 2:16). God’s providence has no limits, thus all things happen exactly as he has ordained, and yet without sin on God’s part. I will again cite Stephen Charnock:
“God never willed sin by his preceptive will. It was never founded upon or produced by any word of his, as the creation was. He never said, ‘Let there be sin under the heavens,’ as he said, ‘Let there be water under the heavens.’ Nor does he will it by infusing any habit of it, or stirring up inclinations to it; no, ‘God tempts no man’ (James 1:13). Nor does he will it by his approving will; it is detestable to him, nor ever can he be otherwise. [Yet] the will of God is in some sort concurrent with sin. He does not properly will it, but he wills not to hinder it. To will sin as sin would be an unanswerable blemish on God. But to will to permit it in order for good is the glory of his wisdom. [sin] would never have peeped up its head, unless there had been some decree of God concerning it. And there would have been no decree concerning it had not God intended to bring good and glory out of it. God wills the permission of sin. He does not positively will sin, but he positively wills to permit it. And though he does not approve of sin, yet he approves of that act of his will whereby he permits it. Though God hated sin, as being against his holiness, yet he did not hate the permission of sin, as being subservient by the immensity of his wisdom to his own glory.”
5. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; 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 other just and holy ends. So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good. (2 Chronicles 32:25, 26, 31; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Romans 8:28)
The last paragraph spoke of God’s providence over the sinful actions of angels and men, and here we see God’s providence over seasons of temptation in his people that God permits in his providence to produce the fruit of holiness in their lives. The Confession first affirms that God is most wise, righteous, and gracious in this providence. God is wise in the way he allows his people to be tempted and he knows exactly what how to go about this work in our hearts. He remains perfectly righteous in that he does not unjustly allow temptation. He is gracious because he uses such seasons mercifully by his grace for our good not for the purpose of judging us according to his justice.
God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts. This particular way of God’s dealing is oftentimes how he works. He does not always work in this particular way, but “oftentimes” he does. Such temptation is only for a season. This give us hope when in midst of such a dreadful seasons; it is not forever. It also reminds us that it is a season in God’s hands, and this is helpful to know since when we struggling with sin, we often feel far from God, and may struggle with feelings of condemnation, especially if we are not exactly winning the fight. These temptations may be manifold, meaning varied and perhaps many. Probably what is in mind here is that each believer is tempted in various ways; the same thing does not tempt everyone. But it is also possible the meaning includes seasons when multiple temptations are experienced at the same time.
What is meant by the corruptions of their own hearts? It refers generally to the remaining corruption in the regenerate (believers). We may recall from chapter 9, paragraph 4: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.” And so this corruption is what remains from our old nature. If we are not aware of this remaining corruption, we will be caught off guard in such seasons. Unfortunately, those who follow the doctrine of Perfectionism are particular vulnerable to surprise from such seasons. But it seems the phrase “the corruptions of their own hearts” refers more specifically to a deep struggle with those remaining corruptions, or as John Owen puts it (see below), it is the “perplexing power of lust or sin” which is manifesting itself forcefully during this season.
Why does God leave his people in such seasons? The Confession indicates several reasons. 1) to chastise them for their former sins, or 2) to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts that they may be humbled; and 2) 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 3) for other just and holy ends.
“God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts to chastise them for their former sins.” We see in Scripture that God’s discipline comes about “so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32 ESV). God disciplines us so that “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11 ESV). For God’s people, chastisement (or discipline), is not God’s judgment of condemnation, based on former sin as he judges the wicked, but is for the chastisement for the purpose of training us to be holy. The Puritan John Owen writes along these lines: “That God doth sometimes leave even those of his own under the perplexing power of at least some lust or sin, to correct them for former sins, negligence, and folly, I no way doubt.” This is found in his, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers (published in 1656), and is nearly word for word that found in the Westminster Confession of 1646, and the two daughter confessions which both followed the Westminster Confession exactly in this section: the Savoy Declaration of 1658 (of which John Owen was a framer) and the 1677 London Baptist Confession. From Owen, then, we perhaps gain some insight into what the Puritan divines thought about God’s leaving his children to season of temptation as a chastening for former sin. The former sin is then likely not only about breaking commandments, but also former sins of neglecting the means of grace and not watching one’s paths carefully; no doubt that such things expose believers into temptation and incite the corruptions of their hearts (i.e. the “perplexing power of…lust or sin).
“God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts… to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts that they may be humbled.” As believers we can be ignorant of the extent that corruption remains in us. This ignorance is not bliss, for by this ignorance we may find ourselves surprised by sudden and vehement temptation. We sometimes assume that since we had not been tempted for some time in a particular area that the corruption in that are no longer existed. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a season of being tempted in ways we never had been before. This can disturb our peace in Christ and leave us shaken. But God often leaves us to such a season so that we grasp the strength of the remaining corruption is in us, and that we may be humbled. It was hidden to us prior to this season god permitted, but now we perceive with glaring clarity. There is in the heart of man, even in the regenerate a wicked heart that no one can understand (Jer. 17:9). Our heart can so easily deceive us, and God will use these seasons of temptation and the raging of the corruption of our hearts to show us our wicked and deceitful hearts. Scripture warns us, “let him who thinks he stand take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Part of the process of sanctification requires us to better understand the remaining corruption in our hearts, and to understand the labyrinths of deceit that weave their way in our hearts. We need to understand ourselves as much as possible so that we can discern the paths and hiding places of sin that we may effectively mortify sin. When we discover these corruptions and deceits of our heart we are humbled, and that is often the aim of such a season. The proof text which follows this section is 2 Chronicles 32:25, 26, and 31: “But Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. 26 Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD came not upon them in the days of Hezekiah. 31 Howbeit in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to enquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart” (KJV).
The other proof text provided here 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (KJV). God humbles us that we may see his sufficiency for us. By this humbling, God wills 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. When manifold temptations and desires for sin come our way, we only have one place to flee and that is to the Lord; we run to him for he alone is our shelter. We recognize that we can only endure temptation if we constantly depend upon him for our support (strength). It may be that we had become slack with our time in the Word and relaxed the time we spent in prayer. But when temptation comes, we are reminded of the cost of slackness, unwatchfulness, and prayerlessness costs us dearly: our corruption hearts take advantage of our lethargy. Sometimes we just want to take our ease, but just as the soldier in the live battlefield wants ease, he must never let his guard down for the enemy is always at hand. We must never fail to watch and pray. “Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure” (Proverbs 4:26 ESV). “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17 ESV). The Valley of Vision has a helpful prayer which is very applicable here. “Teach me to believe that if ever I would have any sin subdued I must not only labour to overcome it, but must invite Christ to abide in the place of it, and he must become to me more than vile lust had been; that his sweetness, power and life may be there. Thus I must seek a grace from him contrary to sin, but not claim it apart from himself.” These are the hard lessons we learn in those difficult seasons of temptation.
God also uses those seasons of temptation for other just and holy ends. This is a catch- all of sorts. It reminds us that the things the Confession has states here is not meant to be an exhaustive list. God is wise, righteous and gracious by bringing about the greatest economy from those difficult seasons. The Confession adds: So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good. God is personally in the midst of those dark providences of temptation. Surely those are some of the hardest seasons we go through, but it is a great comfort to know those seasons are by his appointment, for his glory, and for our good. God has promised us that we are free from the evil of affliction (1689, 21:1). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV).
- “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:16-18 ESV).
6. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as the righteous judge, for former sin doth blind and harden; from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts; but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruptions makes occasion of sin; and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others. (Romans 1:24-26, 28; Romans 11:7, 8; Deuteronomy 29:4; Matthew 13:12; Deuteronomy 2:30; 2 Kings 8:12, 13; Psalms 81:11, 12; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Exodus 8:15, 32; Isaiah 6:9, 10; 1 Peter 2:7, 8)
The last paragraph had focused upon God’s providence regarding sin in his children, but here the Confession addresses God’s providence regarding sin in those who are not his children—referred to as the wicked and ungodly. For his own children, we see God’s attributes of wisdom, righteousness and grace highlighted, but here we see only God as the righteous judge. The word righteousness here has to do with God’s justice. When Scripture says that God is a righteous judge, it means that he is not partial or unjust, but a just judge. God deals with the wicked and ungodly with equity according to his perfect righteousness. God chastises the elect for former sin according to his righteousness, but included is grace. The wicked and ungodly are judged for their former sin according to justice, but grace and mercy are excluded. The apostle Paul said: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:14-15 ESV). God shows mercy and compassion to his elect, but grace passes over the reprobate. This free and discriminating choice demonstrates God’s glorious mercy and justice (1689 3:3). Those God does not show mercy to receive his justice; a fearful thing to receive for the ungodly and wicked.
God, for former sin does blind and harden the wicked and ungodly. This is a righteous (just) judgment for their former sin. What is meant by blind? It means one is unable to understand spiritual truth. What does it mean that God hardens? It means the spiritual heart is not pliable, sensitive or inclined towards God, his law, or to the gospel. It is to have a heart of stone, which is hard, rather than a heart of flesh which is soft. To be blinded and hardened by God is a very fearful thing. We see multiple passages which speak of God’s blinding and hardening—some were touched on in chapter 3. In Romans 1, Paul talks about how men and women’s rejection of God led to God giving them over to futility and darkness of mind (Rm. 1:24-28). We also see that God explicitly says he will blind and harden people. “I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21 ESV). Or, “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:4 ESV). And, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, ” Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever” (Romans 11:7-10 ESV). That God does this is without dispute; how he does it is important to understand, for God is not the author of evil (see 1689 3:3).
The Confession explains four ways that God blinds and hardens. Notice the oppostite parallel in paragraph 5 related to sin in God’s people. We will take these one at a time. First, from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts. We will remember from the commentary of chapter 3, paragraph 3, that God does not actively create evil in a heart in order to blind or harden, rather he does so passively by removing common grace which restrains sin, and without it they freely (of their own unregenerate free-will) become blinded and hardened by their own sin. Sproul expresses: “It is not that God puts His hand on them [the reprobate] to create fresh evil in their hearts; He merely removes His holy hand of restraint from them and lets them do their own will.” The wickedness and ungodliness which results, is from the creature alone. God does not escape culpability by a mere technicality. No, sinners genuinely love evil and freely pursue it; it is only by God’s active restraint—through common grace—that they do not sin more. God is most just if he chooses to remove such common grace; they never deserved that grace in the first place, and since they did not use that grace to repent (Rm. 2:4), then, God is perfectly just to remove it and give them over to sin.
Here the Confession seems to only be speaking of ‘grace’ in general terms, but specifically the hardening and blinding is a result of the removal of common grace in conjunction with the sinner’s pursuit of sin; it is special grace which would have enlightened their understanding, and worked positively in their heart bringing them to repentance and faith. This special grace will be discussed in chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling. This grace would have wrought upon their hearts. In other words, it would have opened their eyes and softened their heart. We are reminded here that unless God intervenes by his grace to initiate salvation, no sinner would ever repent and come to Christ (Jn. 6:44). God freely gives this grace or withholds it. He will give it to his elect in his time, but will never give it to the reprobate whom he passes over (1689 3:3).
The second way God blinds and hardens the wicked and godly for former sin is that he sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had. Scripture declares: “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt. 13:12-13). Jesus indicates here that those whom he gives his special grace to will receive an abundance of graces. But those to whom God does not extend his special grace to, God will sometimes take away even the common graces they had. The common graces given to them—so that they would repent—are justly removed because they did not repent. The Confession prefaces this by saying sometimes—meaning God does not always withdraw these gifts of common grace. God does so or does not do so according to his own purposes.
Third, God blinds and hardens by exposeth them to such objects as their corruptions makes occasion of sin and withal, gives them over to their own lusts. This seems difficult at first because it may appear that God is tempting them by exposing them to objects which lead to sin. We need to recognize that God’s common grace often serves the purpose of restraining people from being as evil as they could be. The doctrine of total depravity does not teach that each sinner is as wicked as they could be; rather that sin has invaded every portion of their being. God’s restraining common grace is a grace; it is not deserved. Thus if God removes that undeserved grace, he is perfectly just to do so. And thus by God not exposing them to things which lead to sin he is giving common grace, and so by withholding it he remains just. When God withholds restraining grace it may mean that the wicked and ungodly will no longer be protected, and thus they are exposed to things of which their sinful nature will take advantage. Remember, this is for former sins; thus it is, in part, a judgment. We are reminded from paragraph 5 that when God “leaves for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts” he does so ultimately for their good, but here, that aim does not exist—only further judgment.
God, for former sins, will give the wicked and ungodly over to a reprobate mind (Rm. 1:28). But what we do not want to miss is that their corruptions make occasion of sin. It is not God who implants corruption in the sinner’s heart causing them to sin; they do so freely and abundantly of their own volition. They see the occasion (i.e. opportunity) to sin and run headlong into it. As a result, God withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world. God had graciously restrained them, but now removes restraint. This reminds us: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (Jm. 1:14 KJV). “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Psalms 81:11-12 ESV). And, “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness”(2 Thess. 2:11-12 ESV). There is a serious warning that sin, and a lack of repentance of it, comes with a heavy price. We could say that sin makes occasion for more sin, and one sin leads to another, unless the redemptive power of God, through the gospel of Christ, intervenes to regenerate and sanctify.
Fourth, God also gives them over to… the power of Satan. This is perhaps the most sobering judgment for former sins. In Scripture we see this passage: “among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20 ESV). This is a most severe judgment. No doubt the Confession is echoing, in part, Ephesians 2:2: “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (KJV).
The Confession states: whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others. As the saying goes, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.” The means God uses to soften his own, hardens the wicked and ungodly. Paragraph 5 stated: “God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins.” There the result is for their good, but here in paragraph 6, the chastisement for former sins is not for the good of the wicked and ungodly.
7. As the providence of God doth in general reach to all Creatures, so after a more special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof. (1 Timothy 4:10; Amos 9:8, 9; Isaiah 43:3-5)
The Confession has already made the point that providence extends to all creatures, but a further point is being made here. Providence reaches all creatures, but it is applied in a special way to the church. How does this special providence show itself to the church? By making sure that the disposing, meaning the carrying out of all things is for the good of the church. God takes care of his church in a special manner! This applies to the whole church and each member of the church. Romans 8:28 says: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). The phrase, all things, in the Confession echoes the ‘all things’ in Romans 8:28. In addition, we see other important passages: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10 ESV). And, “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. 5 Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you” (Is. 43:3-5 ESV).
Thomas Watson wonderfully said: “See here, that which may make us long for the time when the great mystery of God’s providence shall be fully unfolded to us. Now we scarce know what to make of God’s providence, and are ready to censure what we do not understand; but in heaven we shall see how all his providences (sickness, losses, suffering) contributed to our salvation. Here we see but some dark pieces of God’s providence, and it is impossible to judge of his works by pieces; but when we come to heaven, and see the full body and portrait of his providence drawn out into its lively colours, it will be glorious to behold. Then we shall see how all God’s providences helped to fulfill his promises. There is no providence but we shall see a wonder or a mercy in it.” And Thomas Boston said: “God has straight purposes for crooked providences.” Since in a special way “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern”  the church, it is , then, the most blessed institution and family to belong to.
We have made our way through another long chapter, but the riches we have gained will greatly assist us in our Christian pilgrimage—giving us great comfort and confidence in our God. This chapter has shown us the workings of God in this world, the church, and our own lives. It has not glossed over the topic, but addressed even the most difficult aspect of providence regarding sin. What we have learned about God’s providence—how it extends even to the fall and all sinful actions of free agent creatures—will be especially important as we head into the next chapter dealing with the fall of mankind. The Confession builds precept upon precept, and so all we have learned so far is necessary in order to understand the following chapters. I think it appropriate to end this chapter with a precious hymn about providence.
God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
Behind every frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain. Amen! 
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 216.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book II, Ch. II, section 16, 201-202.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 91. Likewise Hodge states: “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 works of creation, but likewise in his continual control of all his creatures and all their actions.” See A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 91.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 119.
 In Isaiah 46:9-11, we see a clear link with the issuing of a decree and the execution of it. I will cite just verse 11b: “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (ESV). Decrees are issued, and providence carries them out.
 Ephesians 1:11 appears to be an allusion or echo of Isaiah 46:9-11.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), pg. 95.
 Ezekiel Hopkins, An Exposition on the Lord’s Prayer…[and] Sermons on Providence, and the Excellent Advantages of Reading and Studying Holy Scriptures (London: for Nathanael Ranew, 1692), 267 as cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6559.
 The definite article “the” seems out of place here, at least according to modern English usage. I note that the entire section “to the end for the which they were Created” is not present in either the Westminster Confession or the Savoy Declaration. The framers of the 1689 Confession added this from the 1646 First London Confession, but interestingly, the definite article is absent there. Presumably, there was purpose the 1689 framers added the definite article. My critical text source for the Confession is James Renihan’s True Confessions. I also checked three other printed sources I have, and all of them have the definite article present. Interestingly, I checked my printed edition of The Charleston Confession (a version of the 1689 Confession used in the Southern United States), and the definite article is absent. In the end, I presume that the usage was appropriate three hundred years ago, and I am not prepared to say that it matters doctrinally. But it is important to at least investigate such matters as far as we are able since sometimes doctrinal meaning can change by the usage of just one key word.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 95.
 It could also be argued that ‘first cause’ refers to the preceding phrase which includes “foreknowledge.” We will recall from chapter 3, foreknowledge means essentially foreordination in Scripture (see Acts 2:23). I will for simplicity sake, I will refer to the ‘first cause’ as the Decree of God, rather than treating foreknowledge and God’s decree as separate distinct terms.
 Chance has a relative named ‘Fate.” Of Fate Calvin says: “Even though we are unwilling to quarrel over words, yet we do not admit the word “fate,” both because it is one of the words whose profane novelties Paul teaches us to avoid [1 Tim. 6:20], and because men try by the odium it incurs to oppress God’s truth.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207. Calvin also says: “What then? You ask. Does nothing happen by chance, nothing by contingency? I reply: Basil the Great has truly said that “fortune” and “chance’ are pagan terms, with whose significance the minds of the godly ought not to be occupied.” Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, Ps. 32:4 (MPG 29. 329 f.). Cited by John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207.
 I do not mean to say that the believer should never use such words, but that such words may communicate unbiblical concepts. Calvin mentions Augustine’s sorrow over his use of the word ‘fortunate’ in Augustine’s, Against Academics—even though Augustine’s use was proper. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 95.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191.
 Calvin states: “Then when we read that at Joshua’s prayers the sun stood still in one degree for two days [Josh. 10:13], and that its shadow went back ten degrees for the sake of King Hezekiah [II Kings 20:11 or Isa. 38:8], God has witnessed by those few miracles that the sun does not daily rise and set by a blind instinct of nature but that he himself, to renew our remembrance of his fatherly favor toward us, governs its course. Nothing is more natural than for spring to follow winter; summer spring; and fall, summer—each in turn. 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, special, providence of God.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 2, 199.
 Ames, Marrow, 1.9.10. Sedgwick, Providence Handled Practically, 11. Cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6556.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191. The italics are original. The Roman numerals refer to the chapters and paragraphs of the Westminster Confession.
 John Owen, A Display of Arminianism, in Works, 10:36 as cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6637.
 The word ‘Contingent’ is used in chapter 2, paragraph 2, to show that God is not dependent upon anything to bring about his purpose. In chapter 3, paragraph 1, the Confession states: “God hath decreed in himself…all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” In both places, it is related to God’s decree, and one to second causes. In both places, it has to do with things which are dependent upon another in order to happen.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191-192.
 Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 98.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 98.
 These Scriptural examples I credit to Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 91.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 100.
 R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 157.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 122.
 Paul Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 1993), 67. Cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 295.
 See commentary on 1689 4:2 regarding the greater good argument.
 Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. II (1853; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 147-149. Brackets mine.
 John Owen, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers; The Necessity, Nature and Means of it, with A resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Belonging: The Works of John Owen. Edited by Wm. H. Goold. 16 vols. (1850-3; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 48.
 Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett, (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 295.
 R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 145.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 127.
 Thomas Boston, The Crook in Lot, in Works, 3:511-16. Cited in Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Providence, Kindle, location 7136.
 1689 Chapter 5, Paragraph 1.
 Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publishing, 1961), hymn 21. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”