"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD
When studying Article
13, we do well to remember who it was that wrote this article, and the circumstances
in which he wrote it. In the face of persecution, and hated by the Roman Catholics,
deBres' circumstances were such that he had to preach in secret, and had to
visit members of his congregation after dark. Though he lived in constant
uncertainty about his freedom and even his life, he penned the words of Article
13, and included them in the confession he prepared for his congregation.
In the midst of the insecurity of his life, deBres in Article 13 confessed
that he knew himself safe in the hands of His faithful and sovereign God.
The doctrine of providence is as much a matter of faith as the doctrine of creation. Like creation, we can only believe it; we are not able to explain or prove the providence of God. It is a doctrine which confronts us with the limits of human understanding. It raises many questions within us, questions which are unanswerable. So we do well to approach this doctrine with due humility.
Lord's Day 10 describes for us what is meant by the term "providence". "God's providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that...all things come not by chance but by His fatherly hand." Two aspects of providence are noted: God both upholds and governs the world He created.
PROVIDENCE MEANS: 1) GOD UPHOLDS HIS CREATION
After God finished His
work of creation on a particular day, all that He had made up to that point
in time did not collapse, but continued to exist. After the second day, the
firmament God formed did not collapse, but stayed in its place. Likewise,
after God created the trees, these plants did not collapse into nothingness,
but continued to exist. This is the one aspect of God's providence: God upholds
the world He created, causes it to keep on existing. That creation is dependent
on God for existence itself is pointed up in Psalm 104. We read in the verses
29 and 30 concerning all creatures, "You hide your face, they are
troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You
send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth." If the Lord had made the world, but then turned around and left it, it would
straightaway have collapsed into nothingness.
If it is God who sees to it that this world continues to exist, it follows that the world is dependent on God., Deists, however, in the tradition of the Epicureans mentioned in Article 13, deny this. They subscribe to the philosophy that God is to be compared to a watchmaker who makes a clock, winds it up, and then leaves it on the shelf to tick by itself while he himself goes home. They maintain that God created the world, and then went to heaven and left the world to its own devices, to chance. Article 13 rejects this as a 'damnable error,' confessing instead that God upholds the world, cares for the world, ensuring that it continues to exist. No tree, no stone, no butterfly, no human being could exist if it were not for God who upholds all things. We are totally dependent on God and this calls for humility. Humility in turn leads us to prayer, for it is God who gives life. It is by God's grace alone that we awaken each morning. In prayer we acknowledge this reality, thank Him for the new day He gives, and ask for His care and blessing for the new day.
PROVIDENCE MEANS: 2) GOD GOVERNS HIS CREATION
To 'govern' is to lead. Not only has God made the world and uphold it, but He also leads it. Only those things happen which God wishes to have happen. No matter what happens in this world, it is always God's will that takes place. He, after all, is sovereign (see Psalms 93, 95-99). It is from eternity that God has determined all that is going to happen. We know this from passages as Ephesians 3:11, where we read, "according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." God has planned all that is going to happen. In Psalm 139:15, 16 David speaks of his conviction that the Lord, even before he was physically formed inside his mother's womb, knew all that would happen in David's life. "My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skilfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them." From eternity the Lord determined who David's parents would be, determined that he would be a shepherd, that he would kill a lion, that Saul would persecute of him, that he would sin with Bathsheba, that Absalom his son would rebell against him. God governs so that all that He determines to happen does happen. God led David's life in such a way that God's specific plan for David's life took place. This was equally true of deBres who confessed in Article 13 "that according to His holy will He so rules and governs (all things) that in this world nothing happens without His direction."That deBres suffered persecution was, he confessed, because his God led his life in this way. His God was the One who sovereignly upheld the world and determined that all these events should ever take place.
CHALLENGES TO THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE
The doctrine of God's
providence was once acknowledged by all in the western world. Since God was
acknowledged as being God, no-one denied either that He upheld and governed
creation. Our day no longer believes the doctrine of God's providence. This
is due to a combination of two factors. 1) The eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries saw the development of science and technology, so that people began
to understand why such things as thunderstorms or earthquakes
happened. The modern mind looked to science for answers, and the doctrine
God's providence was judged unnecessary. 2) The twentieth century has
witnessed much evil. One need only think of the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima,
Nagasaki. By means of sophisticated communications technology we are the more confrontedwith the evil of our day; all the horrors of this
world are so very visible to us. In the face of so much evil, people have
concluded that a God of love is obviously not in control; otherwise all this
evil would not happen. These two realities, scientific knowledge and an awareness
of so much evil in this world, have caused the people of our day to question
the doctrine of providence and to deny its truth.
In this society, though, we confess with the words of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed Sunday by Sunday. With these creeds, we acknowledge that we "believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth."As to the meaning of this confession, Lord's Day 9 explains it as follows, "the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, ...still upholds and governs them by His eternal counsel and providence...." This confession puts us out of tune with the age in which we live. Yet we believe it, for Scriptures teach the continuing sovereignty of God. The doctrine gives comfort too, for, as Lord's Day 10 explains, the reality that God has created all things and still upholds them by His providence means that "we can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move." In a word: sovereign God is my Father, and my Father is sovereign God.
HOW GOD CONTROLS ALL THINGS
We cannot explain how God controls all things. This God is truly Sovereign, beyond our comprehension. We cannot grasp how He at any one moment is able to know the exact number of hairs on the heads of each of the five billion or so people on this earth. Yet that's the teaching of Scripture (see Matthew 10:30). We cannot grasp how God can ensure that not a bird anywhere on earth falls to the ground apart from Him. Yet this is the teaching of Scripture (see Matthew 10:29). God does not just lead each of these creatures at random, but He leads them according to a plan He has designed from eternity (see Psalm 139:16). To consider the logistics of this is beyond human understanding. I do not, and I cannot, understand it, for I am but a person. God, though, is God, and so I believe that my Father controls everything that happens on this earth. What a God this is! And this God is my God in Jesus Christ!
When we think of miracles, we tend to limit our thinking to those incidents which are extraordinary, like a dead person made to walk again, feeding 5000 people with just five loaves of bread, or the sudden calming of a wild storm. Then we are quick to acknowledge that God is at work. The fact is though, that God is at work in all that happens, be it an ordinary or an extraordinary event. That a dead person comes to life is certainly God's doing. However, the fact that a living thing lives, that the sun shines, that storms blow, is equally God's doing. Everything around us displays God at work. God is not only at work in the extraordinary incidents of life, but also in the most ordinary things we take for granted.
God normally works according to set patterns. We call these patterns "laws of nature". A miracle is an incident in which God acts differently than He normally does. Miracles occurred in the Bible to draw attention to the Word of God. We ought not to expect miracles today, since the Word of God is complete. In fact, Rev 13 ascribes "signs" and miracles to Satan (vs 13).
We must always consider that our God is busy in EVERYTHING that happens, including the wind that blows, the rising of the sun each morning, and birds that sing. It is our familiarity with the normal occurrences of life that prompt us to forget that God's hand is behind all that happens. Yet we are to acknowledge His hand even in the red traffic light! In the words of Article 13? "... in this world nothing happens without His direction." The word 'nothing' means exactly that; nothing happens without His direction. Would that we think in such terms ALWAYS, with reference to ALL that happens in this world and in our lives. Then the following words of Article 13 would mean so much more to us, "This doctrine gives us unspeakable consolation, for we learn thereby that nothing can happen to us by chance, but only by the direction of our gracious heavenly Father." In a time when society says 'God is dead,' we may believe that God controls EVERYTHING.
GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY AND MAN'S RESPONSIBILITY
God is one hundred percent SOVEREIGN. After He created people, God commanded them to have dominion,
to rule. Included in this mandate to have dominion is the notion that people
are one hundred percent RESPONSIBLE in all things they do. This responsibility
for all we do remains even after the fall into sin. This raises the question:
how do we understand God's sovereignty over against man's responsibility?
For example, we say that a red or a green traffic light is God's doing, yet
we also know that man can and does set and adjust the timing of traffic lights.
In Isaiah 10 we read one of the prophecies of Isaiah, a prophet who laboured during the reign of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The historical timing of Isaiah 10 is not known for certain. However, it was during the reign of Hezekiah that the Assyrian armies camped around the city of Jerusalem, and we may picture the prophecies of chapter 10 as dating from this time. Assyria was a dreaded world power at the time and had already conquered several cities (see vs 9). The Assyrians were dreaded because of their ruthlessness, looting, pillaging, and raping; they trampled the people like dirt in the streets of the cities they conquered. While the people of Israel were filled with dread on account of the mighty Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem, Isaiah's task was to speak words of comfort and encouragement to God's people.
In the verses 5 and 6 we read that God sent Assyria to punish His wayward people Israel. "Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hand is My indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of My wrath I will give him charge ..." Assyria was God's rod of anger, a stick in God's hand sent to punish straying Israel. God used Assyria to accomplish what He set out to do, to accomplish exactly that which God wished to happen. Then, having accomplished his work assigned by God, Assyria is punished for what it does. "Therefore it shall come to pass, when the LORD has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, "I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks" (vs 12).
Yes, Assyria was arrogant and didn't reckon with God. In verse 11 we read of boastful Assyria arrogantly setting out to conquer Israel, motivated by nothing else than imperialism. Jerusalem would be just another conquest to add to its growing empire. Boasts Assyria, "As I have done to Samaria and her idols, shall I not do also to Jerusalem and her idols?" God holds Assyria accountable for its arrogance. Assyria will be held totally responsible for what it does to Jerusalem; Assyria will not be able to excuse its actions, or complain to God. "Shall the axe boast itself against him who chops with it? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him who saws with it? (verse 15). Here we have sovereign God exercising His sovereignty over the activities of Assyria. First God uses Assyria as a tool, and when God is done with this tool, He punishes Assyria because Assyria dared to raise its hand against God's covenant people. Here we face what to us is a contradiction. How can sovereign God consider Assyria totally responsible?! This is something we just cannot fathom. The logistics of God being sovereign and people being totally responsible are beyond what the human mind can grasp. Though we would like to understand it, we do not need to. God is God, and we but people. So it is for us to accept in faith what the Lord says about His sovereignty, and at the same time to accept that we are responsible for all we do.
While imprisoned, deBres wrote a letter to his wife (see the notes on Article 1a, page 7). This letter exuded peace and contentment. DeBres wrote this letter knowing that he would soon die. How was it possible for him to write words which spoke of contentment in the face of being torn away from wife and children? He was not bitter at the soldiers had arrested him. He was not angry because he could no longer do what he yearned to do. Why not? DeBres understood that the soldiers were merely tools used by God. Why then speak in terms of revenge or displeasure?! DeBres worked with the two realities of man's responsibility and God's sovereignty. He knew that the soldiers were responsible for his capture, but he also knew that God is sovereign and that therefore the soldiers' deeds (and his own life) were in God's control.
GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY AND GOD'S GOODNESS
The problem we have with
God's sovereignty in upholding and governing all things becomes even greater
when we confess that God is good (Article 1). Some of the things people do
are good, but people also do much evil. How do we reconcile that with God
being one hundred percent sovereign? Isaiah 10:6 describes Assyria's brutality;
Assyria was evil. Yet Assyria was no more than a tool in God's hand to punish
Israel; simultaneously, the God of Israel is good! Isaiah 10:12 reads, "Therefore
it shall come to pass, when the LORD has performed all His work on Mount
Zion and on Jerusalem ..." What was this work of the Lord?
The Lord humbled His people and brought them to repentance by means of the
evils inflicted by the Assyrians. The Lord did what He did for Israel's
Recall too the course of Joseph's life. In Genesis 45 we read of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who hated him when he was but a teenager and tossed him into a pit. These were the brothers who sold Joseph to Midianite traders who in turn took him to Egypt. The Bible does not expound on how Joseph felt in response to such abuse by his own brothers. Yet we can quite imagine how Joseph, human as he was, felt. His reaction to his brothers would no doubt have been similar to the way any of us would react if evil befell us by another person's misconduct. Yet how did Joseph address his brothers when he revealed himself to them? He reminds them in no uncertain terms that they were one hundred percent responsible for what they did to him. "... I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt" (Verse 4). Yet he goes on in verse 5, saying, "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life." Here Joseph mentions the two notions of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility in the one breath. On the one hand he tells them that they, his brothers, abused him, sold him and at the same time he confesses God's hand in it. What would have been experienced as incredibly evil by Joseph, he nevertheless can say that it was God who did it. Joseph recognises that behind the evil was God. No, we cannot explain this.
In Acts 2 we read of Peter, on the day of Pentecost, explaining the meaning of Pentecost. "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know - Him being delivered by the carefully planned intention and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death" (vss 22,23). Here Peter tells the Jews very bluntly, that they crucified and killed Jesus, but in the same breath says that this took place according to the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God. Consider the evil of a righteous man being nailed to a cross and having the full load of God's wrath poured out on him. Peter does not cover up the evil Christ suffered at the hand of the Jews. Yet, inspired by God, Peter also says that this evil took place in accordance with the knowledge and purpose of God. God's hand was behind it.
Once again, it is impossible for us to reconcile God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Scriptures say that Almighty God is good and so He cannot be the author of sin. "Yet God is not the Author of the sins which are committed nor can He be charged with them. For His power and goodness are so great and beyond understanding that He ordains and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly" (Article 13). Joseph's brothers, the king of Assyria, the Jews, were all responsible for their unjust actions. God's acts are always excellent, good and just. "And to His actions surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire farther than our capacity allows us. But with the greatest humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, and we content ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which He teaches us in His Word, without transgressing these limits" (Article 13). We would love to understand God's actions, but here we come to the limit of what we can understand. All that is left for us to humbly say is, "Lord, help me to believe it."
GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY AND OUR PATIENCE
The reality that God governs
all things totally must lead to humility and patience in the face of difficulty.
In the face of suffering, we are inclined to say that Satan is at work here
- as if he were a second god with power similar to God. This perception leads
in turn to a feeling of being hard done by, victimised by evil, and hence
of being impatient.
It is true that Satan was involved in the evil Job experienced. Satan was given free reign by God to inflict suffering upon Job (with the exception of death). In the first two chapters of Job we read how Job lost his wealth and children, was covered in boils from head to toe. Job, a noble man, was made destitute, reduced to the indignity of sitting in ashes scraping his itches with a potsherd. To top it all off, his "help-meet" advised him to curse God and die. Talk about evil befalling a person! Much of the book is devoted to how Job and his friends react to the situation. Three of his friends believe Job's calamities to be Job's own fault. Yet Job maintains his innocence. Unable to understand why God lets him suffer so much evil, Job boldly challenges God. "Let me be weighed on honest scales, that God may know my integrity... Oh that I had one to hear me! Here is my mark. Oh, that the Almighty would answer me ..." (Job 31:6, 35).
Rather than answer Job's questions, God confronts Job with His sovereignty; see Job chapters 38-41. God challenges Job who dared to question God's wisdom. Says God to Job, "Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me" (38:2,3). God then proceeds to ask Job questions which serve to point up His sovereignty, that all things are in His control. Job is asked if he has ever made the sun to rise, if he is familiar with the depths of the sea, if he can direct the course of the stars, if he can feed the hungry lions, or if he knows when the wild animals give birth to their young. What is there for Job to say when God says to him, "Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it" (40:2). Job had rebuked God because of the evil God had permitted, and God's questions which he can only answer in the negative make it clear to Job the futility of having done so. He admits to God, "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further" (40:4,5).
In chapter 42:2-6 Job goes on to speak of the Sovereignty of God, of His providence, "I know that you can do everything, and that no purpose of yours can be withheld from You. You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, 'I will question you, and you shall answer me.' I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Job suffered in the true sense of the word, yet he confesses God to be God in everyaspect of life. 'My life is in God's hands,' says Job. 'Shall I then complain? All comes from God.' And who is God? God is my Father for Christ's sake. God is good (see Article 1b). Job heard what God had to say and he closed his mouth and protested no more. In the words of LD 10: the "benefit" of knowing that the Creator still upholds and governs all things is that "we can be patient in adversity."
This I must remember too in the context of evil experienced in my life. Though evil might come through Satan, it does not (in the ultimate sense of the word) come from Satan. God is sovereign. "His power and goodness are so great and beyond understanding that He ordains and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly." He lets Satan do certain things. Satan is but a creature; he is certainly no free agent, no more than the king of Assyria ever was truly free, or Hitler. The fact that 6 million Jews died in Auschwitz was no accident. God's hand was behind it. That thirty six people were shot dead in Port Arthur last month was no accident either. God's hand was behind that too. Our human logic leads us to conclude that God is then to blame for the evil we encounter. Yet the fact of His goodness means that God remains above reproach in all He does. No, we cannot understand how God's hand can be behind the evils Job experienced, we experience. This is something we can only believe, in humility. "As to His actions surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire farther than our capacity allows us. But with the greatest humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, and we content ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which He teaches us in His Word..."
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God who upholds the world. He it is who keeps the world going and leads things as they happen in order to gather the Church and bring glory to His Name. If He in His wisdom determines the need for Auschwitz or Port Arthur, it will not do for me to complain. Instead, I believe that He is busy gathering His Church.
Said deBres in his particular circumstances -and each of us with our particular histories and in our particular circumstances confess this too- "This doctrine gives us unspeakable consolation, for we learn thereby that nothing can happen to us by chance, but only by the direction of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures so under His power that not one hair of our head -for they are all numbered- nor one sparrow can fall to the ground without the will of our Father. In this we trust, because we know that He holds in check the devil and all our enemies so that they cannot hurt us without His permission and will" (Article 13). If something happens to me, it is my God who allows it.
Who is my God? He is my Father in Christ. So much evil happens in our lives too, and we question, WHY? However, 'why' is the wrong question to ask. Ever since the fall into sin, all that there should be is death: physical and spiritual death. After all, we were all lost to Satan's side, and therefore should expect only evil. It wasn't for nothing that man was sent out of Paradise into a world of thorns and thistles. However, the great marvel is that there is good! How was this possible? Only because Christ went to the cross and took upon Himself the evil I deserved. God's wrath, which I deserved for my evil, was poured out on Him. My Father is good. Does He give me evil in return for the evil which I did? No, He doesn't. Christ paid for sin and removed the curse from the evil that happens, also the evil in my life. Therefore I know myself so safe. Evil can still happen but the curse is removed from it. God's wrath is gone for Christ has removed it.
God has His own wise reason for giving whatever it is He gives. He keeps this world going for His glory and for my salvation. Though Job suffered much, in the end he was a much stronger person, and God was glorified. Even evil comes by the will and permission of my God, and He turns it to good. Our hurts and pains remain, but the curse and sting have been removed from them. To use the words of Article 13: this "gives us unspeakable consolation."
The benefit of knowing
that God has created all things and still upholds them by His providence is
then this: "We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity,
and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful
God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures
are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as
move" (Lord's Day 10).