Providence – assurance and expectation
In a previous post we outlined the biblical doctrine of providence. But we also saw how this doctrine could be misused in some cases – taking the place that the atonement should enjoy at the heart of the gospel.
This can show itself in testimonies as well as evangelistic preaching – and dangerously distorts the gospel. One wonders what kind of Christianity people are being saved to!
Assurance of salvation
But that’s not all. Among Chinese churches, providence can take on an unexpectedly prominent place when it comes to assurance of salvation.
You may have noticed that for some Christians their assurance rests not on the doctrine of the atonement, but on the doctrine of providence. How do they know that God is real? how do they know that they are spiritually alive? why do they have confidence that they belong to God? It is not actually because of the finished work of Christ. Instead their assurance rests on the fact that God supernaturally intervened at several points in their past.
And so what some people instinctively turn to for assurance is not the gospel – but their testimony of how God brought them through a health scare, how God spoke to them and told them they should become a pastor, how God provided in a totally unexpected way in a time of great need. Instead of our assurance resting on the objective work of God in the gospel, it rests instead on the subjective feelings and experiences in my life!
And you can understand that what God appears to do in the here-and-now is much more immediate and observable than the cross of Christ. More than that, it is much more personal than the cross of Christ: “Yes, Christ died for the elect – but let me tell you about how he took away my cancer!” And the idea behind this is that, as one of God’s people, God is now involved in my life! God now supernaturally intervenes in the normal course of events to look out for me!
However this is a false view of providence. God does not providentially care only for Christians – his providence extends over all people, and at every time (Acts 17:22ff). And so it is wrong to build our assurance on providence – since God providentially cares for both non Christians as well as Christians. Our assurance should rest on the objective work of Jesus on the cross!
Expectation of blessings
You may also find that the normal expectation for the Christian life also becomes one of blessing: because we have come to him and made him our God, he will look after us. It may not happen in ways we would expect, but the God that we have pledged ourselves to will in turn bless us in physical, material, and emotional terms. Our families will get along more. We will succeed in life. God will bring healing into our lives.
And of course he may – God is sovereign over all the things in this world – car accidents, near-misses, exam questions, beautiful scenery, crying children. But there is often an unwarranted expectation of blessings in the here-and-now, and not a longing for the glorious freedom of the children of God that will one day be revealed (Romans 8:18-23). There is an expectation that blessings will be material or emotional things, and not so much spiritual realities (Galatians 3:14). But more than that, there is little said about the expectation of persecution (2 Timothy 3:12), loss of relationships (Matthew 10:34-36) and loss of material goods (Hebrews 10:34).
As a result it puts forward an expectation of the Christian life that may be attractive – but which is clearly different from what God has promised to believers. Paul Helm, in his book on providence, writes:
We can see from this how mistaken and misguided are those who teach that a well-ordered Christian life will be a happy life, or a long life, or a prosperous life or a healthy life. A survey of the lives of the saintliest of the people of God provides no confirmation of such claims. There are no promises of God which guarantee any of this; and in fact there are teachings of Scripture which suggest that it is impossible to discern a pattern to the lives of believers.
Paul Helm, The Providence of God, 126.
One danger of all this is that it sets Christians up with unrealistic expectations for the Christian life. This might work itself out in a suppressed disillusionment when blessings do not readily materialise. Or in people feeling compelled to manufacture and embellish experiences in order to fit in with others. Or people’s assurance of salvation being shaken when their business fails!
But a more serious danger is that it dishonours God. Because he is thought of merely as the provider of good things for us to enjoy – rather than the one who himself is good, the one who will one day be the source of our eternal joy. He is dishonoured when the blessings his people delight themselves in are the material blessings in the present – not in his own majestic goodness.
In fact you could say that the promise of success, harmonious family relationships and material prosperity have much more in common with the desires of most non-Christian Chinese than it does with biblical Christianity! In the language of CS Lewis, believers are being told that God will give them better mud, with which to make wonderful mud pies in the slum – and their eyes are never lifted to see the glorious offer of the holiday at the sea…