Providence and God's Sovereignty
Based on commentary by John Calvin

The one true God is the Sovereign Lord of the universe.  He works according to His own sovereign will.  The Westminster Confession of Faith in the third chapter speaks of Godís eternal decree, the first paragraph stating:  God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.  It continues: 

WCF 3.2 Although God knows whatever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet He has not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.                        

WCF 3.3 By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death.

And so the discussion of Godís eternal decrees continues.  So also the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms set forth the Biblical doctrine of Godís providence.  The Shorter Catechism asks in question 11, what are the works of providence?  Answer:  Godís works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions.

Both Godís sovereignty and His providence are taught in the book of Jeremiah. 

Fortune and luck are un-Christian superstitions.

Men greatly deceive themselves, when they think that fortune or the issue of events is in their own hands; for though they may consult most wisely, yet things will turn out unsuccessfully, unless God blesses their counsels.[1]

Godís Providence

The Prophet Jeremiah takes it as granted that the world is governed by Godís providence, which means that the world is governed not by fate or chance but by God. (Jer. 12:2)[2]  Since then God by His hidden counsel governs the affairs of men, it follows that all events, prosperous or adverse, are at His will.[3]

Godís providence ought not to be subjected to human judgment, for it is absurd in men to judge of Godís power according to the perceptions of the flesh.  God Himself says that He takes heaven and earth in the hollow of His hand.  When, therefore, men seek to comprehend the power of God, it is like a fly attempting to devour all the mountains.  Hence the Prophet reproves this presumption to which we are all by nature inclined, even to determine according to the comprehension of our minds what God is about or ought to do, as though His power were not infinite. (Jer. 50:25)[4]

Godís decrees must be fulfilled.

ďWhatever God has appointed must be fulfilled.Ē  Though, then, heaven and earth may seem united to impede the celestial decrees, let us know that we ought to acquiesce in Godís word.  For we have said that it was Jeremiahís purpose, in a manner, to bring into subjection whatever men might plan in their own minds; for this alone is sufficient, God has decreed what He declares. (Jer. 49:26)[5]

God is sovereign over manís salvation.  Men are saved by grace alone; they do not have the power to ďchoose Christ.Ē 

If men co-operate in half with God, and if there is a concurrence of human power with the grace and aid of the Holy Spirit, and if this sentence, ďIt is not of him who wills, or of him who runs,Ē is true according to the sense given to it, so we may also say, that it is not only of God who shows mercy, but also of him who wills and runs.  Why?  Because the mercy of God is not sufficient if it is to be aided by manís power.  It then follows, that all human power and all labors are completely excluded by these words of Paul. (Jer. 10:24)[6]

God saves, but He uses preachers:  Godís peculiar glory is taken away, when salvation is sought through the arm of men (cf. Jer. 17).  But though God is the only author of salvation, yet it is no objection to this truth, that He employs men in effecting His purposes.  So also He converts men, illuminates their minds by the ministers of His gospel, and also delivers them from eternal death (Luke 1:17).  Doubtless were any one to arrogate to himself what Christ is pleased to concede to the ministers of His gospel, he could by no means be endured; but as I have already said, we must bear this in mind, that though God acts by His own power and never borrows anything from any one, nor stands in need of any help, yet what properly belongs to Him is, in a manner, applied to men, at least by way of concession. (Jer. 51:56)[7]

  •      By nature, the human will is in bondage to sin and Satan.

As understanding or knowledge is the main thing in repentance, it follows that man remains completely under the power of the devil, and is, as it were, his slave, until God draws him forth from his miserable bondage.[8]

  •      Semi-Pelagianism is a man-centered, false gospel

The true gospel is God-centered:  The gospel teaches us to glory in God alone.  If then we admit ourselves to be destitute of all power and flee to God under the consciousness of such a need, we shall doubtless obtain whatever is needful for us; but if we are inflated with the conceit of our own power, or of our own righteousness, the door is closed against us. (Jer. 17:14 )[9] 

  •      Arminianism teaches a false gospel

The Papists set up free-will and put conversion in the power of man himself; they dream that we can turn to either side, to good as well as to evil; and thus they imagine that we can, after having forsaken God, of ourselves turn to Him. (Jer. 24:7)[10]

Men are by nature blind.  When they are blinded by the devil, they cannot return to the right way, and they cannot be otherwise capable of light than by having God to illuminate them by His Spirit.  Thus man, from the time he fell, cannot rise again until God stretches forth His hand not only to help him (as the Papists say, for they dare not claim to themselves the whole of repentance, but they halve it between themselves and God), but even to do the whole work from the beginning to the end; for God is not called the helper in repentance but the author of it. (Jer. 24:7)[11]

How foolish the Papists are in their conceit [folly] about free-will.  They indeed allow that without the help of Godís grace we are not capable of fulfilling the Law, and thus they concede something to the aid of grace and of the Spirit; but still they not only imagine a co-operation as to free-will, but ascribe to it the main work.  Now the Prophet here testifies that it is the peculiar work of God to write His Law in our hearts.  Since God then declares that this favor is justly His, and claims to Himself the glory of it, how great must be the arrogance of men to appropriate this to themselves? (Jer. 31:33)[12]

God is sovereign over the universe and over history.

Though men make a great stir and disturb the whole world, yet God directs all things by His sovereign power, and nothing takes place except under His guidance and authority.[13]

God executes His own purpose by His incomprehensible power. (Jer. 43:8-10)[14]

God is sovereign over the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms.

The Chaldeans would come by the authority of God; for men are ever likely to ascribe to fortune whatever takes place; and we shall hereafter see in the book of Lamentations (Lam. 3:37-38) that the Jews were so foolish, that in their calamities they attributed to the events of fortune the destruction of the temple and city and the ruin of the kingdom. (Jer. 1:15)[15]

The kingdoms of the world neither rise nor stand except through the will of God. (Jer. 51:7)[16]

  •      God is sovereign over all people.

The Prophet means to say that in Godís hand are the hearts of men, so that they who seem to excel in great boldness, melt as wax in a moment. (Jer. 50:43)[17]

  •      God is sovereign over evil people.

The Scripture is full of expressions which show that all mortals are prepared to obey God whenever He intends to employ their services; not that it is their purpose to serve God, but that He by a secret influence so rules them and their tongues, their minds and hearts, their hands and their feet, that they are constrained, willing or unwilling, to do His will and pleasure.  And in the same sense He calls Nebuchadnezzar His servant; that cruel tyrant never meant to offer his service to God, but God employed him as His instrument, as though he had been hired by Him.  God governs by His hidden and incomprehensible power both the devil and the ungodly, so that they execute, though unwittingly, whatever He determines. (Jer. 25:8-9)[18]

God so governs the world that He often exalts even the ungodly to the highest power, when His purpose is to execute through them His judgments.[19]

Though that heathen king [Nebuchadnezzar] had regard to his own interest, yet his mind was ruled by the secret power of God who thus designed to rescue His servant [Jeremiah] from death; for God is accustomed to work even by the ungodly, who have another thing in view.  It is not always by a voluntary act that men serve God, for many execute what God has decreed when they have no intention of doing so; and He so turns and drives them here and there, that they are constrained, willingly or unwillingly, to obey His authority. (Jer. 39:13-14)[20]

God rules by His secret power ungodly men and leads them wherever He pleases, though nothing of the kind is ever thought of by them.  To explain the matter more fully, we must observe that God commands in two ways; for he commands the faithful when He shows to them what is right and what they ought to follow.  Thus daily God may be said to exercise His authority or right of ruling, when He exhorts us to do our duty, when He sets His law before us.  And it is the proper way of commanding or of exercising authority, when God expresses what He would have us to do or what He requires from us.  But God commands the unbelieving in another way; for though He does not declare to them what He would have them to do, He yet draws them, willing or unwilling, wherever He pleases.  Thus, by His secret operation, He induced Cyrus and Darius to take up arms against Babylon. (Jer. 50:21)[21]

Godís hidden providence, by which He influences the ungodly, takes the place of a command, as it is said, ďThe kingís heart is in the hand of GodĒ (Prov. 21:1).  Solomon declares that the hearts of kings are ruled by God.  Though then Darius and Cyrus were carried away by their own covetous desire when they made war, yet God guided their hearts. (Jer. 50:21)[22] 

  •      Even though evil people may fulfill Godís sovereign will, they are nevertheless justly judged by Him for their evil.

Though, then, the Lord employs the ungodly in executing His judgments, yet their guilt is not on this account lessened; they are still exposed to Godís judgment.  And these two things well agree togetheróthat the devil and all the ungodly serve God, though not of their own accord, but whenever He draws them by His hidden power, and that they are still justly punished, even when they have served God; for though they perform His work, yet they do so not because they are commanded to do so.  They are therefore justly liable to punishment, according to what the Prophet teaches us here. (Jer. 25:12)[23]

God sends both prosperity and calamities.

God is the author of all those things which men regard as evils.  Why?  Because God is a righteous judge.  That the world is governed at Godís will not only declares that the chief power and the supreme government is in His hand but goes farther and shows that things happening prosperously are evidences of His goodness and justice and that calamities prove that He cannot endure the sins of men but must punish them.[24]

To deny that God sends calamities is blasphemous and a denial of Him!:  For this reason God severely reproves those who acknowledge not that He sends wars, famine, and pestilence, and that nothing adverse takes place except through His judgment.  Hence the Jews were to learn before the time that when God afflicted them and other nations, they might know that it had been predicted, and that therefore God was the author of these calamities, and that they might also examine themselves so as to acknowledge their sins; for they who dream that the world as to its evils is governed at random by fortune, do not perceive that God is displeased with them; and so they regard not what they suffer as a just punishment. (Jer. 25:20)[25]

Even when He sends adversity, God is in control!:  God commands the wicked, He commands diseases, He commands the sword, He commands the famine and the pestilence; and yet there is no reason or understanding in the sword, in the pestilence, or in the famine; but Scripture thus teaches us that all things are under His control, so that nothing can touch us, except as far as God intends by these to chastise or humble us. (Jer. 34:22)[26]

When calamities like a deluge spread over the whole world, we sometimes think that such a confusion happens by chance and without any cause.  For when God afflicts some portion, the difference may lead us to some reflectionóďOne part is afflicted and another escapesĒ; but when evils overwhelm the whole world, then, there being no difference, we think that all things are in a state of confusion, nor can we collect our thoughts so as to know that God so takes vengeance on all, that He yet regulates His judgments, as it is right, according to His infinite and incomprehensible wisdom and justice. (Jer. 49:28)[27]

We must not question God or His ways.

When Godís works have the appearance of being unreasonable, we ought humbly to admire them and never to judge them according to our computation; for God is not to be judged by us.  Therefore, as I have already said, we are then only wise, when we humbly adore Him in all His works, without disputing with Him; for when we adduce all possible things, He will close our mouth with one word, and check all our presumption; no, He will ever overcome us by being silent, for His justice will always overthrow whatever may come to our minds.  But we must bear in mind what I have stated, that God never so acts by His absolute power as to separate it from His justice; for this would be as it were to wound Himself; for these things are undivided, His power and justice, though justice often does not appear.  However, this may be, His sole and simple will is to us the rule of all justice. (Jer. 50:45)[28]

The doctrine of Godís sovereignty brings comfort and peace to Godís people.

Godís sovereignty teaches His faithful people that our lives are in His hands.  Our lives are under the custody and protection of God. 

There is no doubt but that the hairs of our head are numbered before God; thus it cannot be that tyrants, however they may rage, can touch us, no, not with their little finger, except a permission be given them.  It is, then, certain that our life can never be given them.  It is, then, certain that our life can never be in the hand of men, for God is its faithful keeper; but Jeremiah said, after a human manner, that his life was in their hand; for Godís providence is hidden from us, nor can we discover it but by the eyes of faith.  When, therefore, enemies seem to rule so that there is no escape, the Scripture says, by way of concession, that we are in their hands, that is, as far as we perceive.  We ought yet to understand that we are by no means so exposed to the will of the wicked that they can do what they please with us; for God restrains them by a hidden bridle, and rules their hands and their hearts.  This truth ought ever to remain unalterable, that our life is under the custody and protection of God. (Jer. 26:14-15)[29]

Though there may be many ways by which we may escape from our present dangers, yet our life is in Godís hand, so that He hides and conceals us; for we ourselves would run headlong unto death, were we not covered by the shadow of His hand. (Jer. 36:26)[30]

Our heavenly Father knows what is best for His children. 

Even imprisonment can be a blessing to Godís people:  Had Jeremiah been at home, he might have been at any time stoned by the people; for there were not lacking those disposed to stir up ravenous men against him.  He might then have been every moment in danger of his life at home.  But now in prison, he was safe, and no one could do him any harm.  Besides, had he been at home, many might have robbed him, so as to leave him nothing to preserve his life; but in prison he had his daily allowance.  Thus, then, God often conducts His servants in a manner that is wonderful and beyond what we can conceive and in the meantime acts as the head of a family in supplying their wants. (Jer. 37:21)[31]

Sometimes God tries our patience through adversity.

Jeremiah adds that he was in the court of the prison, in order to show that God tried his patience, for a prison was a place of degradation. (Jer. 37:21)[32]

The hearts and purposes of men are governed by a power from above, so that enemies, even the worst, while they rage against us, are moved not only by their own feelings, but also by the hidden working of God, and according to His counsel, as He would have them thus to try our faith.  For if God moderates those who boil with anger and wrath and renders them placable [benevolent] to us; so also he lets loose the reins to those who rage against us, and not only so, but he also stirs them up, when His purpose is to punish us for our sins, according to the doctrine taught us everywhere in Scripture.  So in Psalm 106, it is said that God turned the hearts of the heathens to hate His people. (Jer. 42:11-12)[33]

God is in the business of turning adverse situations to the ultimate benefit of His people. 

In forgiving his brothers, Joseph said, ďBut as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people aliveĒ (Gen. 50:20).  So also the apostle Paul teaches us that ďall things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purposeĒ (Rom. 8:28). 

Though Jeremiah was shut up in prison, yet the word of God could not be bound, as Paul says, who gloried in the fact that though he was in chains yet the truth spread far and wide (2 Tim. 2:9).  Such was the case with Jeremiah; though he was retained as a prisoner, he yet ceased not to discharge his office; and yet there is no doubt but that the purpose of the king was in this way to restrain him.  The prison was, as it were, the captivity of prophetic truth.  But the king and his counselors were mistaken; for Jeremiah was not less free in the court of the prison than if he had walked through the city all the day, no, he had many heralds. (Jer. 38:1-4)[34]

Let us then learn to cast all our cares on God, so that our life may be safe and that we may have calm and tranquil minds. (Jer. 38:26)[35]  As Peter says, cast ďall your care upon Him, for He cares for youĒ (1 Pet. 5:7). 

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on The Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, Vol. II, trans. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 56.
[2] Vol. II, 122-123; cf. Jer. 15:44 (Vol. II, 277).
[3] Vol. II., 59.
[4] Vol. V, 164.
[5] Vol. V, 101-102.
[6] Vol. II, 59.
[7] Vol. V, 281. 
[8] Vol. III, 229.
[9] Vol. II, 367. 
[10] Vol. III, 228-229.
[11] Vol. III, 229. cf. Vol. IV, 213, 217.
[12] Vol. IV, 133. 
[13] Vol. I, 55.
[14] Vol. IV, 514.
[15] Vol. I, 55.
[16] Vol. V, 203.
[17] Vol. V, 188.
[18] Vol. III, 251-252.
[19] Vol. V, 204.
[20] Vol. IV, 434.
[21] Vol. V, 160.
[22] Vol. V, 160-161.
[23] Vol. III, 257.
[24] Vol. III, 271.
[25] Vol. III, 271, emphasis added.
[26] Vol. IV, 301. 
[27] Vol. V, 104.
[28] Vol. V, 193.
[29] Vol. III, 328.
[30] Vol. IV, 350.
[31] Vol. IV, 383.
[32] Vol. IV, 384
[33] Vol. IV, 492. 
[34] Vol. IV, 385.
[35] Vol. IV, 418.

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Revised: 01-14-2012