Divine providence is the means by and through which God governs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. This includes the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human birth and destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of His people (Psalm 4:8). This doctrine stands in direct opposition to the idea that the universe is governed by chance or fate.
The purpose, or goal, of divine providence is to accomplish the will of God. To ensure that His purposes are fulfilled, God governs the affairs of men and works through the natural order of things. The laws of nature are nothing more than a depiction of God at work in the universe. The laws of nature have no inherent power, nor do they work independently. The laws of nature are the rules and principles that God set in place to govern how things work.
The same goes for human choice. In a very real sense we are not free to choose or act apart from God’s will. Everything we do and everything we choose is in full accordance to God’s will—even our sinful choices (Genesis 50:20). The bottom line is that God controls our choices and actions (Genesis 45:5; Deuteronomy 8:18; Proverbs 21:1), yet He does so in such a way that does not violate our responsibility as free moral agents, nor does it negate the reality of our choice.
The doctrine of divine providence can be succinctly summarized this way: “God in eternity past, in the counsel of His own will, ordained everything that will happen; yet in no sense is God the author of sin; nor is human responsibility removed.” The primary means by which God accomplishes His will is through secondary causes (e.g., laws of nature, human choice). In other words, God works indirectly through these secondary causes to accomplish His will.
God also sometimes works directly to accomplish His will. These works are what we would call miracles (i.e., supernatural events as opposed to natural). A miracle is God’s circumventing, for a short period of time, the natural order of things to accomplish His will and purpose. Two examples from the book of Acts should serve to highlight God directly and indirectly working to accomplish His will. In Acts 9 we see the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. In a blinding flash of light and in a voice that only Saul/Paul heard, God changed his life forever. It was God’s will to use Paul to further accomplish His will, and God used direct means to convert Paul. Talk to anyone who converted to Christianity, and you will more than likely never hear a story quite like this. Most of us come to Christ through hearing a sermon preached or reading a book or the persistent witness of a friend or family member. In addition to that, there are usually life circumstances that prepare the way—loss of a job, loss of a family member, failed marriage, chemical addiction. Paul’s conversion was direct and supernatural.
In Acts 16:6-10, we see God accomplishing His will indirectly. This takes place during Paul’s second missionary journey. God wanted Paul and his company to go to Troas, but when Paul left Antioch of Pisidia, he wanted to go east into Asia. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia. Then they wanted to go west into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Christ prevented them, so they ended up going to Troas. This was written in retrospect, but at the time there were probably some logical explanations as to why they could not go into those two regions. However, after the fact, they realized that it was God directing them where He wanted them to go—that is providence. Proverbs 16:9 speaks to this: “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
On the other hand, there are those who will say that the concept of God directly or indirectly orchestrating all things destroys any possibility of free will. If God is in complete control, how can we be truly free in the decisions we make? In other words, for free will to be meaningful, there must be some things which are outside of God’s sovereign control—e.g., the contingency of human choice. Let us assume for the sake of argument that this is true. What then? If God is not in complete control of all contingencies, then how could He guarantee our salvation? Paul says in Philippians 1:6 that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If God is not in control of all things, then this promise, and all other biblical promises, are invalid. We could not have complete security that the good work of salvation that was begun in us will be brought to completion.
Furthermore, if God is not in control of all things, then He is not sovereign, and if He is not sovereign, then He is not God. So, the price of maintaining contingencies outside of God’s control results in a God who is no God at all. And if our “free” will can supersede divine providence, then who ultimately is God? We are. That is, obviously, unacceptable to anyone with a Christian and biblical worldview. Divine providence does not destroy our freedom. Rather, divine providence is what enables us to properly use that freedom.