John H. Gerstner



ACCORDING TO the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” This comprehensive statement says that God’s providence encompasses all and not merely some of the acts of His creatures. Such a definition would include big events and trifles as well — good things, but also evil. Does not Jeremiah teach the same doctrine? “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not?” (Lam. 3:37). Is Acts 15:18 any different? “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” If known to God are all His deeds from the beginning, there is nothing not known to Him. Nothing escapes His purposes — not a single hair nor a falling sparrow.

Neither you nor I would be here to discuss providence if Providence had not brought us here — if God had not done His will in the earth. How conscious we are of all the little details on which our lives to this point have turned. I do not know the trifles in your life, but I do know those in my own. Let me mention one. If a child had dropped a marble one inch more to the left or for some reason I had put my foot one inch more to the right as I once went down a fire escape I would not now, probably, be discussing providence at all.

Not only in your life and mine but in the lives of historic public figures the same significance of detail is apparent. A.H. Strong in his Systematic Theology reminds us that Muhammad’s life once was suspended by a literal thread. The prophet, fleeing his enemies, hid in a cave across which a spider quickly spun a web. When the pursuers saw it, they were convinced that there was no one in the cave. They went on. Muhammad was spared. His religion today numbers more than three hundred million adherents.

But if trifles are vital parts of divine providence, what of evil? Evil is often vastly significant. The most important event which ever occurred was, in one aspect, horribly evil. The crucifixion of Jesus from the standpoint of the crucifiers was grotesquely wicked. Yet, even though the killing of Christ was atrocity itself, what event was so vital and its effects so beneficial as the death of Christ? If God’s providence does not include evil, it does not include the most important event which has ever taken place.

So we say providence is a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways bringing (differently, to be sure, but bringing nonetheless) both the good and the evil. If we deny either, we deny providence. If we deny providence, we deny God. If we deny the benign, we deny the goodness of God. If we deny the evil, we deny the severity of God. The Bible denies neither, but affirms each. “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off” (Rom. 11:22).

Let us consider then these two aspects of divine providence. But first we examine what we shall call “negative providence.”

I. Negative Providence

A. Definition

What do we mean by negative providence? Suppose we begin with the comedian Ed Wynn’s definition based on a slight alteration of some famous lines:

    “There is a destiny that shapes our ends rough; Hew them how we may.”

This is negative enough, but is it providence? No, this is Greek fatalism rather than Christian providence. Why? Because human behavior is disregarded. “Hew them how we may” — that makes no difference. Compare, for an example of this type of thinking, the great Greek tragedian Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. This king, Oedipus, is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. No matter how innocent of either he may try to be, he unknowingly and inevitably does both. Though he consciously strives to avoid these sins, he does them nonetheless and is held guilty for them. So his mother commits suicide, and he gouges out his eyes and goes into solitary and hopeless exile.

The certainty of the end is present in this tragic definition of negative providence. It also contains the element of human activity. In the Wynn satire the man “hews”; in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus does all in his power to avoid fate. Neither actor is a puppet. Each one striven, though to no avail. But, what is lacking in these two accounts? It is the connection between the end and the means. There is no connection between end and means; between destiny and striving. The end comes to pass regardless of striving; indeed, it comes in spite of striving against it. The destiny shapes ends rough, hew them how we may — that is, though we hew to the moral line in an endeavor to make our destiny smooth, it remains rough. Oedipus is essentially a moral person, generally admired by his family and subjects. But all this means nothing, for he is destined to commit the accursed crimes of patricide and incest (and accursed crimes they remain although he intends neither of them).

What a contrast to all this is the negative providence of Scripture! Compare Acts 2:23: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Judas and others indeed delivered Christ up according to the eternal counsel and foreknowledge of God, but they did so by “wicked hands.” Their “hands” were not inactive. They were certainly not opposed to this dread deed. On the contrary, they willfully chose to do the awful deed, for they were denominated “wicked hands.” This illustrates the constant Bible teaching about negative providence; namely, that the doers are always voluntary doers, willing actors, guilty men.

Putting the picture together, this is what we find: Negative providence is the divine appointment even of wicked and calamitous events but not apart from — rather, through — the willing though wicked determinations of men.

B. Forms of Negative Providence

1. External

Providence applies to the totality of things. Since we are here concerned only with the human creature, we note that providence applies to the total person. The total human person is a composite one. Thomas Aquinas has observed that man, in possessing a spirit, resembles angels; in possessing a body, he resembles animals. Furthermore, in addition to man’s having two parts to his personality, body and spirit, he has two periods — time and eternity. Providence relates both to the temporal and to the eternal.

So we consider first that form of negative providence which affects the external, bodily, and temporal aspect of the human personality. Christ referred to temporal providence when He spoke of the hairs of our head being numbered. Both our temporal lives and our environment are part of providence. But the tragic as well as the beneficent elements of the external and temporal are part of providence. For example, Christ said that He must go as it was written of Him, that He must be killed at Jerusalem and that the Shepherd will be smitten, and the like. All of these evil events concerning death are therefore of divine foreordination.

There is a time coming, says the Bible, when God will reveal more fully the displeasure which He now feels. Meanwhile, it appears to the Psalmist as if God is slumbering and needs to be aroused. But God is waiting until the “cup of iniquity” is full. Thus He withheld his judgment upon the Amorites. “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen. 15:16). But though it might seem that God’s judgments are delayed, Moses warned the Israelites, “Be sure your sins will find you out” (Num. 32:23). He told them in his farewell address, as well as on other occasions, of the curses which were sure to overtake those who turned away from Jehovah.

We have impressive illustrations of this negative providence pertaining to the externals here and now. Consider, for example, the fall of Jerusalem. Christ was crucified and nothing happened — then. Later, in the lifetime of the same generation, the city was besieged, civil war, famine, butchery, and indescribable suffering took place. Mothers devoured their own children as the wrath of God came upon the city that crucified His Son.

Nor are visitations of wrath only in the form of military woes and desolations. Roger Babson once made an investigation of bankruptcies in the United States during a certain number of years. Some of these business collapses were traceable to lack of competence — a few. The majority were owing to lack of integrity and honesty.

The eminent historian of the American scene, Charles Beard, said that one of the lessons he learned from his studies was that the mills of the gods grind slowly but they grind exceeding fine. Still another scholar said in a class that if he were intimately familiar with the condition of a community he could predict within a hundred years the date of its downfall. Then he revised that statement claiming that he could predict the downfall within the space of ten years.

Not only do the scholars recognize the temporal judgments which come on mankind and the brimstone which is scattered over all the possessions of wicked men but even the man on the street knows it and sometimes even jokes about it. For example, I used to go bowling with my church people on Thursday nights. Occasionally I would bowl the ball in the corner properly and it would move over to center as it ought and a strike appeared certain. I would start to walk back to the bench. But alas all the pins would not fall down — the two farthest apart still stood! My men should have said: “You were robbed, pastor.” “You should have had a strike, pastor.” “Too bad, pastor.” What they did say was: “You don’t live right, pastor!”

2. Internal

“Your sins will find you out,” said Moses. However, not all visitation is upon the bodies of sinners; it comes upon the souls also. God may wait to pour out wrath upon the external world until the cup of iniquity is full, but apparently He pours out this invisible cup on the soul as soon as it sins. He may seem to slumber as He delays external punishment, but not so in the administration of internal suffering. A person may sin and retribution upon his body not be forthcoming, but his conscience is immediately afflicted. He may, indeed, get away with it; he never gets away from it. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth”; that is, their consciences are alarmed when there is no outward apprehension. “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11). That is, though the wicked prosper outwardly as the green bay tree, he is inwardly blighted. The wicked is as the surging of the sea (Isa. 57:20). That is, however tranquil his situation may appear to be, he has no true peace within. John Calvin says the sinner sometimes has tranquility because he is too “thick” to understand the judgment of God against him. But he is not tranquil about his tranquility. That is, he is disturbed about his peace of mind. There is no rest for the wicked one even when they are resting because they still vaguely and apprehensively wonder whether they should rest, whether all is well with their soul.

II. Positive Providence

A. Definition

When considering the definition of negative providence we used Ed Wynn’s comic parody of the poet. Now, considering positive providence, we consider the poet himself:

    “There is a destiny which shapes our ends Rough hew them though we may.”

The “rough hew” needs explanation. If the poet means “sin as we please,” if he suggests that a positive providence comes about irrespective of our behavior, if things are going to work out well although we always behave badly — then he errs in the opposite direction. Just as there is no destiny that shapes our ends rough, hew them how we may, neither is there any destiny which shapes our ends well, hew them how we may. The shaping and the hewing are integrally related. God shapes as we hew; we hew as God shapes. So, then, the definition of positive providence is: The divine appointment of good and beneficial events but not apart from (rather, through) the willing determinations of men.

B. Forms of Positive Providence

1. External

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). That includes external and temporal events as well as the internal and eternal. “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:6-7). “We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter,” but nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:36, 39). “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16: 33). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience” (Rom. 5:1-3). So these adversities are transformed by divine grace and wisdom into blessings. The same event which is negative providence for the wicked is positive providence for the children of God. The meek, says Jesus, shall inherit the earth. Righteousness exalts a nation. The wicked may appear to prosper, but their way perishes while he who meditates on the law of God day and night shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters (Ps. 1:2).

Honesty may work a temporary temporal disadvantage, but in the long run, even in this evil world, honesty pays. Crime may be a temporary temporal advantage, but in the long run, even in this evil world, crime does not pay. They that take the sword shall perish with the sword while the peacemakers shall be called, even in this world, “the children of God.”

2. Internal

If there is no rest for the wicked even in this world, there is rest for the righteous even in this world. They have peace with God, access to grace, hope of glory. For them to live is Christ and to die is gain only because they will have still more of Christ. For the Christian it is: all this and Heaven too.

Note how this internal joy transforms even the temporal bodily pain to which Christians are subject in this life. A former president of Colgate University was stricken and suffered almost incessantly. His son could not refrain from saying: “Father, I wish I could bear some of your pain for you.” “Son,” the sufferer replied, “I do not have a pain to spare.” A woman in a congregation where this story was told said: “That man must never have had gall bladder trouble!” Seriously, a Christian has no pain to spare.

What shall it be for you? A positive or negative providence? Do you wish divine destiny to shape things rough or smooth? In this world and that which is to come?

Remember that providence is not fatalism. Your hewing is related to God’s shaping. God’s shaping is related to your hewing.


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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