In the Catechism for Young Children, an introduction to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 5 reads: “Why ought you to glorify God? Because He made me and takes care of me.” This is a simple, yet profound summary of chapters 4 and 5 of the Westminster Confession. Creation and providence (which, taken at one angle, includes redemption) are here given as the basis for our worship.
Question 4 of the Catechism defines glorifying God as “loving Him and doing what He commands.” This means, according to the Children’s Catechism (our little ones’ first morsel of systematic theology), the doctrine of God’s providence is ethical. This isn’t surprising. As we’ve seen in the first four chapters of the Westminster Confession, the word of God is given to us to be believed and obeyed, not simply to be understood.
John Frame connects the revelation of God’s character in providence with the natural revelation that leaves all men without excuse:
Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)
As miracle is an extraordinary demonstration of God’s lordship, providence is an ordinary demonstration of it in some respects. However, its universality and pervasiveness make it important as a form of revelation. It is the one means that many people have now to know God. And it is the revelation by which all of us are left without excuse (Rom. 1:20). (The Doctrine of God [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002], 286).
The doctrine of God’s providence flows directly out of chapters three and four of the confession. It’s the means by which God’s decrees are worked out in history, as well as the process by which God preserves His creation. Apart from providence, the eternal decrees would be but simple blueprints of a house God never got around to building. Apart from providence, creation would collapse into chaos.
English Presbyterian John Flavel is noted for saying that providence, like Hebrew words, can only be read backwards. This is both an invitation and a warning. It’s an invitation because providence (like Hebrew) is intended to be read and discussed. We’re invited to contemplate history (as well as our own histories) and give thanks for the Lord’s mighty hand which, for His people, holds a shepherd’s staff. It’s also a warning. As we learn in Job, reading providence prematurely is foolish. As I write this, hurricanes pound the coasts of Florida and Texas. It’s too soon to speculate why the streets have been submerged and countless families have been displaced from their homes. Time may make clear God’s purpose in whipping the wind and the rain into frenzy, but we would be fools to read into it now.
As much as possible, the following meditations on God’s providence will avoid speculation about the meaning of particular events in history (outside of those recorded and interpreted in Scripture, of course). Instead, I want to explore what the fact of providence means for Christian soldiers as we storm the gates of hell. What’s the ethical import of God’s providence? We know the iron will bend and the planks will splinter under the pressure of the Gospel, but how will they buckle and fall? What’s our part to play in the siege? How will we breach the wall? Scripture gives us answers, answers the Westminster Divines perceived and proclaimed in chapter five of the confession. Let’s see what they had to say.