Providence – the gospel of providence
The doctrine of providence has to do with how God works in the world today: how he guides people, how ministry decisions should be made, how we should expect ministries to be funded, what meaning may be derived from historical events.
In the West, providence has primarily centred on discussions about the problem of evil, Deism, and the efficacy of prayer. Today, providence doesn’t get much airplay. At college we didn’t have many lectures on it. It doesn’t feature on many confessions of faith or doctrinal statements. And when did you last read a book on it?
However I believe that those involved in Chinese church ministry must be ready to challenge deeply held misconceptions on providence…
The basics of providence
God reveals to us in Scripture that he sustains the world (Col 1:17-18), and is involved in every detail of the world’s running (Matt 10:29-31, Psalm 147).
Moreover, his work in the world is not random, but purposive – it may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, but he uses all things for his own ends (Rom 8:28). And in this, God is sovereign over both blessing and disaster (Isa 45:5-7).
God’s providence extends over the hearts and actions of individuals (Prov 16:9, 21:1). And within this, one special part of providence has to do with predestination: his divine choice of who will be saved (Rom 9).
Like ‘Trinity’, the word ‘providence’ itself does not appear in the Bible. However theologians use this term to refer to the present work of God in creation. The Shorter Catechism defines providence in this way:
God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.11.
The doctrine of providence gives Christians confidence that God’s purposes will prevail, in what may appear to be a chaotic and hostile world. And it also means that God should receive worship from his creatures for his work in the world.
The gospel of providence
While the gospel centres around the doctrine of atonement, for some Chinese Christians the gospel actually centres around the doctrine of providence.
Listen carefully when someone does an evangelistic talk and you will notice that the emphasis will often be on the promise that God will look after your life: he can help you cope with your illness, he can give you confidence and direction when you lack it.
Listen carefully when when people share their testimonies, and you will also notice that the content of their sharing centres around God’s providential care now: how God helped them through a health scare, or gave them a sense of calm. And by contrast, the atoning work of Jesus on the cross simply doesn’t get a mention.
Of course God does providentially care for his people – but a dangerous and fundamental switch has taken place: the effects of the gospel are now being confused with the gospel itself.
This happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, sin is minimised (see previous posts on the Chinese understanding of sin, parts 1 and 2) – and as a consequence, the main problems that confront people is no longer the expectation of future judgement on account of sin – but instead the present difficulties in living – such as lack of confidence, physical illness or inability to get a job. And secondly the pragmatic nature of Chinese culture lends itself to a gospel that has immediately tangible benefits.
Providence – and God’s agenda for the world
Is that wrong? you might wonder. Because after all, providence is not an unbiblical doctrine. What could be wrong with giving it prominence? What could be wrong if it means that people will come to God?
Providence is about God’s activity in the world now. But God’s activity in the world is inextricably linked with his purposes for the world in the past and the future – not separate from it. In this world God is pursuing his own agenda – and not ours. It is for his glory to be made manifest in the cross of Christ. But it minimises and misrepresents the glory of God in the cross of Christ for us to announce that God is primarily concerned for our welfare. That he is here to care for us through our health scares and employment difficulties.
And ultimately if people come to God for the sake of their own health or job prospects – they come to God as idolaters. With hearts that have only ever seen him as a useful stick to clear the cobwebs in our path (see previous post). With hearts that have never been reformed, and who have never seen God as glorious and worthy of worship in himself.
Tune your ears to pick up on the underlying theology people have on providence. Listen to what is said, and what is left unsaid in testimonies and evangelistic talks. And distinguish clearly the effects of the gospel, from the gospel itself.