God’s Providence: A Two-Edged Sword (Part 3)

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Positive Providence

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.

Again, there are two forms of positive providence, and the first is 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” (Romans 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” (1 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” (Romans 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” (Romans 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, Jesus said, 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 water (Psalm 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 who take the sword shall perish with the sword, while the peacemakers shall be called, even in this world, “the children of God.”

The second form of positive providence is 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, and hope of glory. For them to live is Christ and for them to die is gain, only because they will then have even 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.” To which this man replied, “Son, 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!” But, 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, and God’s shaping is related to your hewing.


This is part six of John H. Gerstner’s small book entitled Theology for Everyman, originally published in 1965 (Moody Press, Chicago). That book was subsequently republished by Soli Deo Gloria in 1991. It has since fallen out of print and we thought it would be good to revisit this book here on the blog. Over the next couple of months, we’ll work our way through the book. You can read Chapter 1, “Everyone Must Be a Theologian,” beginning here. Chapter two began here and continued here.

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