There is one word that can be used to describe all events that have happened, are happening currently, and will happen in the future. This word describes all actions, small and great, sinister and virtuous, destructive and beneficial. All deeds ever performed fall under this one word. This term is not found in the Scriptures, but theologians have used it for centuries. That word is providence. This post will look especially at how the Heidelberg Catechism deals with the doctrine of providence as it is expressed in Lord’s Day Ten.
Before digging into the wondrous depths of this doctrine, the definition of the word providence will be considered. Definitions are always crucial to a proper understanding of anything and this case is no exception. Providence comes from the Latin word provideo, which means to “see, behold, set, provide for, make preparation for, foresee, look ahead.” (Stelten, 1995, p. 215) The conjugate of provideo, namely, providence, therefore means to see before. As Rev. Hoeksema says the term “denotes a seeing and knowing the things that are to happen and a preparing for them in advance.” (Hoeksema, 2006, p.228) Providence is always used in the sense of it being an act of God. This of course does not accurately describe the action of God, because God does not look ahead to see what will happen and then make plans for it. Rather God, by the act of providence brings all things to pass that He has determined in His almighty counsel from eternity. Quoting Hoeksema again, “. . . God does not prepare for the things that happen, but all things flow from His own will and counsel.” (Hoeksema, 2006, 228) Therefore, providence means as the Heidelberg Catechism describes it, “The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.” (The Protestant Reformed Churches, 2005, 93 – 94)
The first thing that must be noted about that definition is that God’s providential hand is in everything. The world does not like to consider that, they would rather assign everything to their god of fate. Luck and chance are the words that they use to describe the circumstances in their lives. The ungodly are also quick to deny God’s omnipresent and omnipotent power over the creation by talking about how Mother Nature does this and that. Even some Christians are skeptical of the idea of the omnipotent power of God. When some act of evangelism is made impossible by governments interfering, hideous crimes, or lack of monetary means Christians are quick to say, “the Devil did it.” But that is an incorrect and blasphemous response. The Catechism says that all things come by the fatherly hand of God, including drought, barren years, sickness, and poverty.
This means that the Heidelberg Catechism is in agreement with what the Bible reinforces over and over again. God is an almighty God in control of all events; He is omnipotent and omnipresent. In Isaiah 45:7 it is written, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Many are quick to say when a benefit befalls them, “that is a godsend.” But what do they say when calamity, distress, wickedness, and evil befall them? The prophet says in Amos 3:6, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” From the book of Job it is evident that God is in control of all things, including wicked and evil acts. Job recognizes this and says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. (Job 1:21).” Notice that he does not say the Lord gave and the Devil took away. No, he knew that God is in control of all events. Further, when some act of the church does not go according to plan, the Lord is in charge of that as well. This happened to Paul and Silas when they wanted to go to Bithynia as Acts 16:7 says, “After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not.” Paul and Silas desired to spread the word to Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit prevented them from going. Thus it can be concluded that the Scriptures teach that God is in control of all things, even in those that are troublesome.
There is great application for the Christian life in the doctrine of providence. Going back to Lord’s Day Ten, which is the lesson on providence, it is written in Question and Answer 28, “What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things? A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” (The Protestant Reformed Churches, 2005, 94)
The first application that the Catechism brings up is to be patient in adversity. In Romans 12:12 the apostle Paul calls Christians to be “. . . patient in tribulation. . . .” The word for patient in the Greek is ὑπομενω meaning “remain, hold out, [and] endure.” (Gingrich, 1973, 225) The Christian is therefore called to endure adversity and tribulation, knowing that God is in control of all things. Patience also means, as is the case in Colossians 3:12, 13, to “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” The word for longsuffering here (μακροθυμια) can also be translated as patience. Using the context to determine what patience means practically, it means to forebear with each other and to forgive the trespasses and errors of each other, because God is in control of the actions of men. The Christian must be patient in whatever position God has called him to be in.
Second, the Catechism calls Christians to be thankful in prosperity. In Deuteronomy 8:10 Moses wrote the command of the Lord, “When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the LORD thy God for the good land which he hath given thee.” In blessing Jehovah the Christian recognizes that the Lord gives everything to him that he needs. The Lord provides. What a wondrous benefit Christians have! Christians owe God praise in both prosperity and in poverty. This is because the truly thankful Christian recognizes that he does not deserve anything that the Lord gives him, but rather deserves the eternal damnation of hell. With thankfulness the Christian will pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” because he recognizes that God is the provider of all things. That is what the Heidelberg Catechism expresses in Lord’s Day 50, when it talks about the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “that we may thereby acknowledge Thee [i.e. God] to be the only fountain of all good, and that neither our care nor industry, nor even Thy gifts, can profit us without Thy blessing; and therefore that we may withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it alone in Thee.” (The Protestant Reformed Churches, 2005, 138) Christian’s must be thankful, because their heavenly Father is in heaven, providing for them and taking care of them through the act of providence.
Third, not only must the Christian be thankful to His heavenly Father for what he receives from His hand, but he must also trust in God to provide it. It is easy to be thankful when the Christian has all that is needed, but what about when he has nothing? The importance of trusting God is pointed out in the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer Twenty-Eight, “. . . we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love . . . .” (The Protestant Reformed Churches, 2005, 138) The Christian must trust that God will take care of him and his family in adversity, in tribulation, in persecution, in poverty, in sickness, and in all things. Christians can trust in God because his providence is omnipresent. As Christ says in the Sermon in the Mount, “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:25 – 30).” Consider that the Creator takes care of His creation; every flower has been taken care of by His hand, will He not then take care of His people? Further, God is working all events for His own glory. Part of that working is the salvation of a people unto himself. God loves His people, He is kind and compassionate to them, and He takes care of them with His grace and favour. He will not cast His people off, but He will always be with them. As 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.” Paul does not mingle words here; he says that we know this truth. There is not a doubt in that statement. God gathers together all the events of the world for the good of His people, so that He may ultimately be glorified. Paul is not just saying this, but this is the Word of the Lord. As Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that he should lie; Neither the son of man, that he should repent: Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” God has said that He will work all things for the good of the elect and He will do it. Trust in Him!
Also, the Tenth Commandment is in agreement with the proper thankful response to providence. The idea behind the Tenth Commandment is contentment. “Thou shalt not covet” means that the Christian is to be content with what he has been given, for example he is not to go looking at his neighbour’s wife and he is not to covet his neighbour’s house. Jehovah has given him all that he stands in need of; he has no need of anything else. Yes, he must pray to God for work, a spouse, and even knowledge and wisdom. Nevertheless he must first realize that God has given him all that he truly needs for his present situation and be content. The Christian is to be content and thankful with what he has seeing that everything that he owns has been given by the providence of God.
The famous passage in Romans 8:35 – 39 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How can the apostle say that? Because he understood the doctrine of providence; the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism understood that as well, saying that “. . . we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love . . . .” Nothing! Paul gives a whole list of terrible things, but being burned at the stake, being torn apart by lions, starvation, economic collapse, torture, and even death, the thing that man fears the most, cannot separate the Christian from the love of God. Not even Satan in all his power can keep Christians from the love of God; not the highest thing, nor the lowest thing can do it. That is because God has already guided all these events from eternity for the good of His people. He is in control; nothing passes over His providential, fatherly hand.
Finally, monumental comfort comes from the knowledge that it is Jehovah who controls all things. Jehovah is a holy, just, righteous, and good God. Would anyone in his right mind want the Devil to be in control of the circumstances of his life, even if it is just the bad ones; the Devil who is the Great Deceiver, vile, wicked, unjust, and proud? No, there is no comfort in that. But the Heidelberg Catechism says that “. . . all things come not by chance, but by His [i.e. God’s] fatherly hand.” Comfort abounds in this doctrine. In the first Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism it is asked, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” Part of the answer to that question speaks directly of the providence of God, “. . . my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ . . . so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head . . . .” The Christian can truly rejoice, in knowing that His God loves him and takes care of him in all circumstances.
Therefore, in response to the teaching of providence the Christian must understand that God is in control of all things. In realising this omnipotent and omnipresent power, he must give thanks to God. He must show this thanks by being patient, by being thankful, and by trusting that all events will work to his good, because he is in the care of a loving and merciful Father. He is not in the care of Satan, he is not in the care of fate, nor is he in the care of himself. The Christian is in the care of Jehovah, the Creator of the heaven and the earth. The God who provides for the lilies of the valley, the fowls of the air, and the God who has numbered all man’s hairs and will not let them fall to the ground without His will. He is the God that governs, defends, and preserves all things for the good of His people. Rejoice!
- Hoeksema, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reformed Free Publishing Association 1985.
- Hoeksema, Herman. The Heidelberg Catechism (An Exposition) God’s Way Out. Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1944.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2008.
- Stelten, Leo. Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin. Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2011.
- Protestant Reformed Churches. The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville, Michigan, Protestant Reformed Churches in America 2005.
- Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism. Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
- Gingrich, F. Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Chicago, Illinois, The University of Chicago Press 1973.