Book I Chapter XVII Section 1-14
Following our contemplation of the doctrine of providence in Chapter 16, Calvin now seeks to explain the practical use of this truth. Calvin begins by considering the purpose of the Providence of God, namely “to train his people in patience, correct their depraved affections, tame their wantonness, inure them to self-denial, and arouse them from torpor (apathy); or on the other hand, to cast down the proud, defeat the craftiness of the ungodly, and frustrate their schemes.”
Calvin also points out that although the exact purposes of God in His providential acts are usually secret, they are always just. He also stresses that in ordering all things providence works “at one time with means, at another without means and at another time against means”. What does this mean? Well, if we use the proclamation of the gospel as an illustration of one of God’s providential objectives – sometimes God uses the desire of men to accomplish His ends (e.g. the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys), at another time he will bypass men altogether (e.g. appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus), at another time against means (e.g. the arrest of Paul by the Jews actually had the opposite effect to what they desired – the furthering his message (Philippians 1.12)).
Calvin then moves on to consider how the doctrine of the Providence of God, as explained in Chapter 16, effects how we deal with:
The future. Someone will say “If our future is decreed by God then surely this makes our choices irrelevant?”. Calvin sees no contradiction between human deliberation and divine providence when it comes to future actions. Why? Because “He who has fixed the boundaries of our life, has at the same time entrusted us with the care of it”. God has committed to us the means and resources to live our lives for Him. We know how we should live and he has given us the mental capacity to care for our lives as best we can. Part of His providence includes us using our means – our intellect and reasoning – to provide for ourselves as we walk into the future.
The past. Another will ask “If God controls everything then how can we punish those who committed crimes in the past, surely they were just serving the will of God?”. Here Calvin asserts that they were not willingly serving the will of God at all. In fact they were seeking to act in rebellion to God’s rule by their evil actions. The fact that God overules the outcome of these actions to serve His ends does not mean He shares the guilt in the motive of such deeds. Calvin explores this topic in more detail in the final chapter of Book I, Chapter 18. One not to be missed!
Prosperity. Knowing that God is overruling everything in creation for their good, the believer is filled with an immense gratitude for the blessings received. Whether the Christian has experienced these blessings via a human agent or not, they will ascribe them all to God as the source of all blessing. However, this will not lead the believer to overlook and take for granted the ministers of these blessings, but rather pay them due honour as those to whom he is under obligation.
Affliction. When anything adverse occurs then the believer will remember that God has made it clear that He desires to teach us patience through suffering, and will see these trials as an opportunity to grow deeper in their Christian character. Consider the patience and graciousness of Job and Joseph, respectively, and ask if they could have become such men of deep character by any other means.
Its a long piece today and much to ponder. Trying to understand the Providence of God in the details of life is futile, its too big. Far better to understand providence’s big picture – its ultimate goal is to make lost souls children of God and then make immature children into Christ-like heirs. I’ll leave you with a final quote that seemed to sum it all up to me. When speaking of the place of human aid in the security of the believer, Calvin states “his confidence in external aid will not be such, that the presence of it will make him feel secure, the absence of it fill him with dismay, as if he were destitute. His mind will always be fixed on the Providence of God alone, and no consideration of present circumstances will be allowed to withdraw him from the steady contemplation of it”.
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son”. Romans 8.28+29
Father, this is what it’s all about – forgive us that we become hypnotised by the tinsel of this world into striving to make our lives pain-free and our future comfort iron-clad. We submit to Your guiding hand, it’s our character, not our careers or bank account, or status, or achievements, or comfort that count. So be it Lord, begin the work in us, Amen.