The Duty Ours, The Power is God’s (Flavel)


When it comes to the mysterious providence of God and trials that come our way in his providence, we need to submit to his will (even when it’s hard to do!). We need the faith to say, “Lord, you know best; thy will be done.” How can we do that? It’s easier said than done for sure! John Flavel (d. 1691) gave a good answer to the hard question: How can we submit to God’s will when his providence includes our suffering and pain?

It must be premised that the question does not suppose the heart or will of a Christian to be at his own command and disposal in this matter. We cannot resign it, and subject it to the will of God whenever we desire so to do. The duty indeed is ours, but the power by which alone we perform it is God’s; we act as we are acted upon by the Spirit.

…We can do this and all things else, however difficult, through Christ that strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). But without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). He does not say, Without me ye can do but little, or without me ye can do nothing but with great difficulty, or without me ye can do nothing perfectly, but ‘without me ye can do nothing’ at all.

And every Christian has a witness in his own breast to attest this truth. For there are cases frequently occurring in the methods of Providence in which, notwithstanding all their prayers and desires, all their reasonings and strivings, they cannot quieten their hearts fully in the disposal and will of God; but on the contrary they find all their endeavours in this matter to be but as the rolling of a returning stone against the hill. Till God say to the heart, Be still, and to the will, Give up, nothing can be done.

Flavel, “The Mystery of Providence”, p. 211-212.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

When Human Means Come to A Stop (Calvin)

The Letters of John Calvin (4 vols.)
Calvin, Letters

In 1555 there was persecution of Protestants in France. Specifically, Renee, Duchess of Ferrara, was facing hardship and trials for following in the footsteps of the Reformers. John Calvin wrote her at least two letters to encourage her to keep follwing Christ and his word. Here are some paragraphs of a letter from Calvin to Renee in June, 1555. Notice how Calvin says that sometimes when impossible trials and obstacles face us in the Christian life, we not only come to an end in ourselves, but God gets us through or past the obstacle/trial in a way we can’t always fathom. (You may have to read it a few times – I did!):

It is truly the office of God to lead us on like poor blind persons, when we are brought to a stop with all our human means, and to devise expedients which we should never have thought of, enabling us to surmount every obstacle though all the while we see not a whit.

It is at the same time our office to pray him to be pleased to open our eyes, that as soon as he, gives us some sign we may immediately follow it. Spare not then to put in practice day by day all the means in your power to advance in the right path. So doing, though you may still be far from the mark, it will not be in vain that you stretch towards it, for our progress is certain, provided we keep following, however faintly; and such an assurance should fortify us to resist all temptations.

Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 188–189.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Means and Ends Cooperate (Bavinck)

Here’s a deep theological thought for the day, a truth that magnifies the sovereignty of God: “With God, means and ends always cooperate.”  Herman Bavinck wrote those words, followed by these statements which highlight God’s sovereign decree:

“In his decree the causes and the consequences, the pathways and outcomes are established in indissoluble connection with each other.  His decree is no loose assembly of various incidental phenomena that exist on their own, but consist of a complex of decisions intimately related, forming an unbreakable whole and a system of divine ideas, one single arrangement of everything that will exist or occur within time.

God executes this decree within time.  Therefore everything that happens within time is mutually related in the same unbreakable way as the ideas and decisions within God’s eternal decree are related.  Therefore we human beings are bound to means; anyone pursuing a goal must travel the path leading toward that goal.  …The Lord holds himself to the means which he established in his counsel for attaining his ends.  Predestination embraces not only the eternal state of rational creatures, but also the determination of the means and paths leading to that eternal state.”

For the biblical background of these statements, see Isaiah 40-46 and Ephesians 1, among other texts.  And if you’re interested in the larger context of the quote, you can find it in Saved by Grace, page 133.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The “Admirable Method” of God’s Providence (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) Around 1560 John Calvin wrote “A Brief Confession of Faith” which was probably meant to be a shorter version of his larger confession for French Reformed churches.  Like other Protestant confessions of faith, it gives a good summary of the main teachings of Scripture – summaries which date back to the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.  Below I’ve posted a paragraph on providence from “A Brief Confession of Faith.”  God’s sovereign providence is a comforting reality for the Christian.  As we face trials and hardships in life, we pray for submission to the good providence of our good God:

I confess that God once created the world to be its perpetual Governor, but in such manner that nothing can be done or happen without his counsel and providence. And though Satan and the reprobate plot the confusion of all things, and even believers themselves pervert right order by their sins, yet I acknowledge that the Lord, as the Sovereign Prince and ruler of all, brings good out of evil; in short, [he] directs all things as by a kind of secret reins, and overrules them by a certain admirable method, which it becomes us to adore with all submissiveness of mind, since we cannot embrace it in thought.

Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, pp. 130–131). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC
Hammond, WI, 54015

[Not] Prying into the Secrets of Providence (Flavel)

 One basic but difficult truth in the Christian faith is this: we can’t always interpret or understand providence.  We sometimes have no idea why certain things happened when they did; we don’t know why they happened how they did.  This fact stretches and tests our faith.  Why did my kids get terribly ill but no one else’s did?  Why did God allow my parents to get into a car accident and sustain life-threatening injuries?  How come there are people getting laid off at work, and am I next?  Sometimes we just can’t understand, interpret, or read God’s sovereign providence.  John Flavel (d.1691) gave wise counsel that the child of God should not pry into his Father’s providence:

Do not pry too curiously into the secrets of Providence, nor allow your shallow reason arrogantly to judge and censure its designs.

There are hard texts in the works as well as in the Word of God. It becomes us modestly and humbly to show reverence, but not to dogmatize too boldly and positively upon them. A man may easily get a strain by over-reaching. ‘When I thought to know this,’ said Asaph, ‘it was too painful for me’ (Psalm 73:16). ‘I thought to know this’ – there was the arrogant attempt of reason, there he pried into the arcana of Providence – ‘but it was too wonderful for me,’ it was ‘useless labour,’ as Calvin expounds it. He pried so far into that puzzling mystery of the afflictions of the righteous and prosperity of the wicked, till it begat envy towards them and despondency in himself (Psalm 73:3, 13), and this was all he got by summoning Providence to the bar of reason. Holy Job was guilty of this evil, and frankly ashamed of it (Job 42:3).

I know there is nothing in the Word or in the works of God that is repugnant to sound reason, but there are some things in both which are opposite to carnal reason, as well as above right reason; and therefore our reason never shows itself more unreasonable than in summoning those things to its bar which transcend its sphere and capacity. Many are the mischiefs which ensue upon this practice.

Indeed.  The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things he revealed belong to us and to our children (Deut. 29:29).  And, as has been said before, even though the child of God cannot always trace the ways of his Father, he can always trust him!

The above quote is found on page 141 of The Mystery of Providence.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The “Unspeakable Consolation” of Providence

One of the great things about the Christian faith is the deep comfort it brings to the weary heart – specifically I’m thinking of God’s sovereign providence.  Scripture abounds with teaching that our Triune God is in complete control of all things for the good of his people (e.g. Lk 21:18, Rom. 8:28, 1 Cor. 15:27, 2 Cor. 9:8, etc). Here are a few comforting quotes on providence from some Reformation confessions and teachers:

 “This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father.” Belgic Confession of Faith XIII.

 “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”  Westminster Confession of Faith 5.7.

 “Knowledge of this doctrine…is the beginning of true happiness.”  Caspar Olevian in A Firm Foundation.

 “Our faith does not look to those means which God uses [in providence], nor does it depend on them, but rather to God who alone can relieve all our necessities, either with or without means as it appears good to him.”  William Ames in The Marrow of Theology.

 “God by his providence preserves his church in the midst of enemies; a spark kept alive in the ocean, or a flock of sheep among wolves.”  Thomas Watson in A Body of Divinity.

“It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled – in spite of all the riddles that perplex them – to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal salvation. … Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God’s fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.”  Herman Bavinck in Reformed Dogmatics II.

 “Now to understand in a spiritual way the universality of providence in every particular happening from morning to night every day, that there is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it – this is from God, and is a great help to contentment.”  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

 “From this contemplation of God’s providence, there ought to arise in the hearts of believers an earnest desire of patience and humility in adversity by the example of Christ, of Joseph, of Job, that in all things which happen somewhat harshly to us we may acquiesce without a murmur in the will and providence of God.”  Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, I.

(This is a re-post from August, 2010).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Providence and Confession of Faith (Bavinck)

 The truth of God’s providence is a source of great comfort in the Christian life.  We believe from Scripture that God is sovereign over all things, from the stars in the skies to the cattle on a thousand hills to the birds in the trees to the hairs on our heads.  Nothing happens by chance, but according to his divine providence (cf. Ps 93:1, 104:19-20, 148:8, 1 Cor. 15:24, Rev. 12:10, etc. etc.).  Herman Bavinck explained this comfort well in the closing statements of his discussion on God’s providence.  Note at the end how Bavinck alludes to the Heidelberg Catechism’s great summary of providence in Lord’s Day 10:

In this consoling fashion Scripture deals with the providence of God. Plenty of riddles remain, both in the life of individuals and in the history of the world and humankind…. But God lets the light of his Word shine over all these enigmas and mysteries, not to solve them, but that “by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

The doctrine of providence is not a philosophical system but a confession of faith, the confession that, notwithstanding appearances, neither Satan nor a human being nor any other creature, but God and he alone—by his almighty and everywhere present power—preserves and governs all things. Such a confession can save us both from a superficial optimism that denies the riddles of life, and from a presumptuous pessimism that despairs of this world and human destiny.

For the providence of God encompasses all things, not only the good but also sin and suffering, sorrow and death. For if these realities were removed from God’s guidance, then what in the world would there be left for him to rule? God’s providence is manifest not only, nor primarily, in the extraordinary events of life and in miracles but equally as much in the stable order of nature and the ordinary occurrences of daily life. What an impoverished faith it would be if it saw God’s hand and counsel from afar in a few momentous events but did not discern it in a person’s own life and lot? It leads all these things toward their final goal, not against but agreeably to their nature, not apart from but through the regular means; for what power would there be in a faith that recommended stoical indifference or fatalistic acquiescence as true godliness?

But so, as the almighty and everywhere present power of God, it makes us grateful when things go well and patient when things go against us, prompts us to rest with childlike submission in the guidance of the Lord and at the same time arouses us from our inertia to the highest levels of activity. In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father.

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 618–619.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015