Q&A: Providence and Decrees

Providence and Decrees

Question

I'm not sure I clearly understand the distinction between God's will as it pertains to his decrees and his will as it pertains to his providence. Does the Bible ever explicitly and specifically say that such a distinction really exists, or is that distinction something we (as humans) have figured out because it seems to us as if God desires one thing but something else happens, which makes us think that he must have had a secret, higher purpose?

Answer

The most explicit reference to secret and revealed will/counsel that I know is in Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." Most of the time the Bible functions according to the latter principle: it reveals things so that we may do/think/be what God wants. But now and then the Bible refers to "hidden things" which God either eventually decides to reveal (e.g. Ps. 78:2 // Matt. 13:35; Isa. 48:6; Dan. 2:22; Amos 3:7; Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:9), or continues to keep to himself (e.g. Job 15:8; Acts 1:7).
The distinction between eternal decree and providence is a bit different. That distinction is based on passages that teach us that God predestined/foreordained things before/since the foundation of the world (e.g. Matt. 13:35; 25:34; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8; 17:8), and on the rest of Scripture that demonstrates that God actually interacts with and governs creation as history unfolds. This interaction is what we call "providence," and it's the default mode of Scripture. But sometimes Scripture reminds us that things that are happening now have been ordained to occur as they do. When it adopts that perspective, it is speaking from the perspective of eternal decree. The terms "eternal decree" and "providence" do not appear in Scripture. They are simply shorthand ways of referring to the concepts that do appear in Scripture.

Think of it this way: First I plan to go to the store (that's equivalent to God's eternal decree), then I go to the store (that's equivalent to providence). The plan is the decree; the doing of the plan is providence. The big difference between my illustration and the reality of God it represents is that when God plans something as an eternal decree, he renders it certain to happen.
God may issue decrees both eternally and providentially. God's eternal decree is always fulfilled, but his providential decree is not always fulfilled. For example, a providential decree might be, "I'm going to kill you at 1:00 p.m." But that providential decree might change if you repent -- God might change his mind. The corresponding eternal decree in that case would be, "I [God] decree that I will be about to kill you at 1:00 p.m., but you will repent before I kill you, so then I will change my mind." And the corresponding providence would be the unfolding of that sequence of events in history. From the perspective of eternity, you can't really say that God intended to kill you or not to kill you unless you qualify it by saying something like, "God willed that at 1:00 p.m. he would intend to kill you, but he willed that at 2:00 p.m. (after you repented) he would no longer intend to kill you."

Eternal decrees are all secret until they are revealed by general or special revelation (I'm including the unfolding of history in the category of general revelation). That is, we don't know what God has planned until he informs us either by doing it or by revealing that he is going to do it. When only God knows what it is, it is "secret." But when he reveals it to us or does it, it becomes "revealed."
That's about as much as we can gather from the Bible regarding these things. And we learn them not only by direct Scriptural teachings on the matter (which are few), but also by observing the way God interacts with man in the Bible and by drawing general principles from those observations.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.