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Some Thoughts on Providence

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
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July 11, 2023 4:00 am

Some Thoughts on Providence

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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July 11, 2023 4:00 am

When tragedy strikes the world—or your personal life—the resulting chaos can knock you offbalance. So where can you find comfort and stability? And how can your response to disaster assure others? Hear the answers on Truth For Life with Alistair Begg.


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This listener-funded program features the clear, relevant Bible teaching of Alistair Begg. Today’s program and nearly 3,000 messages can be streamed and shared for free at thanks to the generous giving from monthly donors called Truthpartners. Learn more about this Gospel-sharing team or become one today. Thanks for listening to Truth For Life!


Anytime tragedy strikes in our world, or maybe in our personal lives, the resulting chaos can knock us off balance.

So where do we find comfort and stability? And how can our response to disaster bring assurance to others? We'll find out today on Truth for Life as Alistair Begg is teaching from Genesis chapter 45. When, in a somewhat humorous tone, he began his column by saying, For the first time in my life, I have no idea what's going on.

He said it somewhat humorously, but he meant it entirely. The events of the world seem haphazard, in many ways uncontrollable, for many people frightening and almost inevitably uncertain. And so the question that falls to the Christian believer is, do we then have anything that is valid to say, any response to make, when what is a not uncommon perception is offered to us in the course of everyday life? Let me give to you the direct quote from the Westminster Confession.

Here we go. God, the Creator of all things, upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least. He exercises this most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and unchangeable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. Now, in contrast to Henry Allen's, For the first time in my life, I haven't got a clue what's going on, the Westminster Divines were sitting down to say, We want to say that the Bible has an answer to that. What the writer to the Hebrews gives to us in really just a phrase when introducing his letter, he says, In the past God has spoken in various ways through the prophets, and now in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son, and he is the one who sustains all things by his powerful word.

It's important to recognize what is being said here. The divines are not suggesting that God as Creator is simply exercising a kind of maintenance ministry, a sort of deistic view of the universe, that there was a watchmaker and he made the watch and he wound up the watch and he set the watch down, and then he's just let everything run on its own from there. No, the language is very straightforward—namely, that he directs, he controls, he sustains, he upholds all things according to his word.

The psalmist says, The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. And when Jesus speaks of these things to his disciples, who were often overwhelmed by the complexities of life as it was unfolding for them, he speaks in the most tender terms, doesn't he? And he makes it so amazingly clear that the vastness of God's interest in the universe extends to the tiniest of concerns. And that's how he argues, from the clothing of the grass of the field to the caring for the fall of a sparrow. He's actually making the claim as Creator that God himself who made this world sustains it and is interested and engaged in it to the very fall of a sparrow. So it's not simply the macro picture.

It's quite immense. If God so clothes the grass of the field that is here today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, won't he look after you, he says? And if there is not a sparrow that falls to the ground, what are you so worried about? It makes sense. The Confession goes on to say, Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, i.e., the first cause, all things come to pass unchangeably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he orders them to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. Which being interpreted means simply this, that as God is working his purpose out according to the eternal counsel of his will, a God who is in absolutely no need of help from any quarter, a God who could have removed every secondary cause and made himself the primary cause of everything that takes place, that God has chosen in the mystery of his purposes to effect his eternal counsel by the employment of secondary causes, to govern a world in which some events and actions cause other events and actions. And these secondary causes, as the Confession says, are either necessary, i.e., he gave us the sun so that we would have something during the day, he's given us the moon so that we would have something to look at in the evening.

These are necessary there. There are other causes that are a result of the free exercise of the will of individuals. So, for example, someone commits a murder, and they are free now to run to a place of safety.

And the exercise of their freedom in that context is going to have a determining impact on the outcome, whether they live or whether they die. And also, in the same way, there are contingent events. In other words, it wasn't happening as a result of some divine intervention from without.

It was contingent upon their action from within, so that God, who is the primary cause of all that happens, upholding everything, securing the safety of the ship, secures the safety of the ship by means of secondary cause. Now, I think that's fairly straightforward. What is also straightforward is that when you think about it, you realize that although God works ordinarily in those ways, he's not trapped in any way. He can work entirely outside of things. He's able to work from above.

And he's also able, incidentally, to work against. Now, let's come in the second half, or the last third, to earth this just in the familiar story of Joseph, Genesis chapter 45. I'm going here because of its familiarity.

I don't think I'll need to do very much to create context. But here in the verses that we've read, it's quite a scene. This is a lot of crying that's going on here. He cried, and he cried so that the Egyptians heard it, and he cried to such a degree that the household of Pharaoh heard it. And the sense of emotion in the disclosure of Joseph to his brothers is quite amazing, isn't it? And they came near, and he said to him, I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. It's interesting he says that, as if they had forgotten. There probably wasn't a day of their lives that they ever said, Goodness, I wonder what ever happened to Joseph when we sold him into Egypt. And then comes this amazing statement, which shows us that this doctrine of providence, of a God who overrules and upholds and sustains, has actually laid hold of the mind of Joseph. Don't be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here.

Which they did. For God sent me before you to preserve life. Now, if you remember the story, he comes down one morning for his breakfast, and he says, Man, did I dream last night. I had a couple of real dillies. And they said, Oh yeah, what were you dreaming about last night? He said, Well, I dreamt, actually, that there were all these sheaves of corn, and they were bowing down to me.

And I think I know what it is. He says to his brothers, It's about you all bowing down to me. That didn't go over real well at the breakfast table. And the sense of animosity that they felt towards this young character, who was obviously something of a favorite of his father's—he was wearing a special coat that they hadn't been given— all of that bitterness and animosity began to build within them. And as a result of that, they determined that in part to prevent the very notion, to get rid of the very idea that such a thing could ever be, they decided, We'll just get rid of him. And in getting rid of him, they actually brought about the very thing that he had described in his dream.

Amazing providence. And so he says to them, You need to know that Pharaoh is really the secondary cause. Humanly speaking, Pharaoh gave me this position, but actually, he says in verse 8, It wasn't you who sent me here but God, and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. In other words, he acknowledges the fact that this God who has created him is the one who sustains and upholds all things. Now, it's important for us to recognize, too, that this is Joseph speaking and not the brothers. If the brothers were saying this, then we would have occasioned to be concerned.

Because if you put it in their lips, then it comes out differently, doesn't it? Because they're now going, Hey, Joseph, you can't blame us for this. This is the providence of God.

This was supposed to happen. You see, we've got nothing to do with this. And that's the way some people play the game. It's the same notion as is addressed in Romans chapter 6. If God is this great God who sustains, uphold, justifies, keeps, and brings to fruition all of his plans for us, why don't we just go out and sin like crazy people so that we can show what an amazing grace-giving God he is and brings everything to completion? And Paul says, No, you don't get it at all, do you?

God forbid that you would ever do that. So if Joseph and his brothers had begun to do that, then they would have been quickly corrected by Joseph himself. In fact, in chapter 50, Joseph says to them, As for you, you meant evil against me. There is no way that you can use the providence of God as a mechanism to cloak your evil. It doesn't work that way.

You can't do that, he says. When you sat down and conceived of this plot, first of all, to kill me, and then my brother Reuben intervened and I got out of that one, but when you sold me into slavery, you sold me into slavery. That was something you wanted to do, and you did it. And the Ishmaelites bought me because I looked like a good business proposition. And Potiphar bought me, and he put me in position because he thought I was a good prospect.

And because his wife thought I was an even better prospect, I ended up in the jail because of her badness. But I want you to know today, fellows, that in it all and through it all, God is the first cause. The brothers were but instruments overruled by him for the accomplishment of his own purposes. They were not pawns. They were participants. Not pawns, participants.

Now, let me make two observations, and I'll draw this quickly to a close. When you seek to bow down underneath this instruction, and bowing down under it is actually the only way to handle it, if you view this simply as an exercise of the intellect, you will probably very quickly go wrong, because your head will be too fat and your neck too stiff. You see, the thing is that God operates in this way because he's God, and because he is able to do what he chooses to do because he's actually God. It's very straightforward, but it's foundational. It doesn't work if God is simply a cosmic principle. It doesn't work if God is simply wrapped up in his creation. It doesn't work if God is somehow inside of ourselves as a construct.

It doesn't work—no, it only works if before there was time and before there was anything, there was God who created all things, who has revealed himself in his Word and in his world. He speaks two ways—in creation and in his Word, in conscience and in creation. And so it is that when God operates in this way and we respond in this way, we need to realize—and here's the first of the two things I interrupted myself, I'm sorry—the nature of sin. The nature of sin is not altered by the use God makes of it. It's still sin. Whatever we have done in our lives remains sin.

The fact that God in his mercy and in his providence works good out of evil, as in the story of Joseph, is a testimony to the magnificence of God. But it does not transmute what was evil somehow into a good. Poison is still poison. It doesn't cease to be poison just because it may be part of a medicinal potion that actually heals.

Still poison. And the second thing is that the will of God never contains permission for us to do what runs contrary to the revealed will of God. You get that? That the will of God never contains permission for us to do what runs contrary to the revealed will of God. So you can't play any of these funny games. I can't play any of these funny games about, actually, I believe this is God's will for me to steal Mrs. Jenkins' handbag, you know. Now, I can tell you it isn't.

Why? Because it says you're not supposed to steal. Well, I really believe that God wants me to covet my neighbor's donkey and everything that goes along with it. No, it's absolutely not possible, because the will of God never runs contrary to his revealed will in Scripture.

And that is of paramount importance when you think about providence. Now, we'll stop before we get to the really big question, which is the mystery of sin itself. For God is not responsible for sin, but nevertheless, since he is the one who creates, sustains, upholds, and controls, somehow, in the mystery of it all, he has ordained that these things should be so. James says, Let no one say when he is tempted that this is as a result of something God is doing. Because God doesn't tempt to sin, because that would make God out to be something other than he is. And what do we know that he is? We know that he is entirely good. So again, you've got a great intellectual dilemma there, but nevertheless, George Lawson in an earlier era in Scotland says, God not only permits sin, but he makes use of it.

No sinner can do any evil that God has not intended to use for the advancement of his own glory. So, we can't use it as a cover-up. Let's finish in this way. We don't need to simply stay with Joseph. We can go to Jesus. And you remember, in the preaching of Peter following the ascension in Peter's sermon, he addresses those who are his listeners, and he confronts them with their culpability in the death of Jesus. And yet, he says, even the capture and execution of Jesus was according to God's set purpose and foreknowledge.

Listen to it. Men of Israel hear these words, Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. It's just a mystery, isn't it?

But the effects of it are so powerful. Somebody gave me a wonderful collection of Cowper's poems and letters. And in it, of course, we have his great hymn, to which he gave the title, Light Shining Out of Darkness, the hymn which begins, 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 minds of never-failing skill. He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will. The staggering thing about this in the life of Cowper is that although he wrote this with such conviction, this particular hymn, we're told, was written in June of 1773, on the evening before he was institutionalized once again for his virtually crippling depression. So the night before they take him away to lock him up, he's writing this hymn, Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds you so much dread Are big with mercy And shall break in blessings on your head. He's writing to himself, for goodness' sake, Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan his work in vain. God is his own interpreter, And he will make things plain.

So there's nothing superficial or cliche or catchy or sort of immediately absorbable or to be used as a mechanism for interacting with a culture that is largely significantly removed from any such notion. It needs to be come to on our knees. It needs to be held softly in our hands. It needs to be trusted resolutely in the face of our death, in the disappointment with our children, in the struggles with our relationships, in all of the various vicissitudes of life which press in upon us. In the doctrine of providence, there is comfort in trouble. In the doctrine of providence, there is security in chaos. In the doctrine of providence, there is the basis for humility in the experience of success.

And it has been well said that the doctrine of providence is really a soft pillow. God, we used to sing in Scotland, is still on the throne, and he will remember his own. Though trials may press us and burdens distress us, he never will leave us alone. God is still on the throne, and he will remember his own. His promise is true.

He will not forget you, for this God is still on his throne. For the first time in my life, writes Henry Allen, I haven't a clue what's going on. I want to say, Mr. Allen, I'd love to have coffee with you. I'd love to tell you about this. Those are the opportunities that await us this coming week.

May God help us to seize them. It is a clear understanding of God's providence that brings comfort in trouble, security in chaos, and the basis for humility in the experience of success. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life.

Alistair will return in just a minute. Today's teaching wraps up a brief study on the subject of the providence of God. If you'd like to re-listen to a message, or if you have friends who would benefit from this study, you can download and share any or all of the sermons for free.

The series is titled Intended for Good. You'll find it on our website at or in the Truth for Life app. Part of our mission at Truth for Life is to build your confidence in the reliability of scripture. In addition to the daily teachings you hear on Truth for Life, we love to select books that will help you do just that. And today we're hoping you'll take advantage of the opportunity to request a copy of a book called Dream Small, The Secret Power of the Ordinary Christian Life. This is a book that shows you how the Bible turns the world's definition of success on its head.

You can request your copy of the book Dream Small when you donate to Truth for Life at slash donate or call us at 888-588-7884. Now here's Alistair with a closing prayer. Father, thank you that these thoughts are big enough to expend significant time pondering, and yet they are earthed in the everyday experience of life, in the marriage of our children, in the birth of a baby, in the care of a loved one, in the unscrambling of a mind that fights for a sense and a semblance of peace. Thank you that there is strength for us, not simply meted out on an annual basis or even weekly, and not even day by day but with every passing moment. And in this we find our hope and our confidence renewed, and we pray in Christ's name. Amen.

I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for listening today. What would be your greatest concern if you were imprisoned? Tomorrow we begin a study in the book of Ephesians. We'll find out what was foremost on the apostle Paul's heart and mind while he was in a Roman prison. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-11 05:04:21 / 2023-07-11 05:13:09 / 9

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