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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 11. What are God's works of providence?
A. God's works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.

providence—The word providence belongs to a large and well-known family of English words. The idea that lies under them all is that of foresight: foreseeing what is coming, and making due provision for it. The term providence can scarcely be claimed as a scriptural word; the almost exclusive appropriation of the word to a sacred use is later than our translation, but it is already put to its present high religious use in Paradise Lost. In the noble invocation of the Holy Ghost, at the commencement of his first book, Milton says

"What in me is dark,
Illumine; what is low, raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This is the loftiest sense the word aver bears; it occurs in a more familiar sense at the close of the same work:

"The world was all before them where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide."
According to the definition supplied by the Catechism, God's works of providence embrace two distinct functions, preserving all His creatures, and governing all His creatures and all their actions, both functions being fulfilled with divine holiness, wisdom, and power.

preserving—"Providence must extend itself as large as creation. For what is providence but a continuance of creation; a preservation of those things in being that God bath given to have a being" (Sibbes).
But Dr. Hodge, one of the ablest of our Calvinistic divines, says: "Creation, preservation, and government are in fact different, and to identify them leads not only to confusion but to error. Creation and preservation differ—first, as the former is the calling into existence of what did not exist, and the latter is continuing, or causing to continue, what already has a being; and secondly, in creation theee is and can be no co-operation, but in preservation there is a concursus of the first, with second causes. In the Bible, therefore, the two -things are never confounded. God created all things, and by Him all things consist."

governing—Steering, directing, ruling, from Lat. gubernare, to steer a ship. "It is true indeed that Plato seems to acknowledge a certain plastic or methodical nature in the universe, subordinate to the Deity, or the Perfect Mind, which is the supreme Governor of all things" (Cudworth).

all his creatures—All His creatures are embraced in God's works of providence; but all are not capable of receiving and sustaining the same degree of care and rule. As we rise in the scale of creation, it is clear that more and more care and rule is needed to preserve and govern the nobler creatures. Hence it is put as a special section of the Confession, that as "the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures ; so, after a special manner, it taketh care of the Church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof."

and all their actions. The truth as so stated is too high for us. It is too stupendous a thought. We cannot picture it in our imagination. We receive it on the testimony of Scripture, but we cannot reason it out in a thesis so as to compel all men's assent, and reverence, and trust It has never been by reasoning that these awful truths have possessed the heart, and conscience, and imagination and will of man. We must ourselves, one by one, believingly and with a filial heart, live under God's providences in order to realize them aright. But by this means we come as life goes on to amass an amount of evidence that no unbelief or doubt can suffice to gainsay. When we are so brought under the power of this great truth, it is with daily increasing awe, wonder, and expectation that we watch God's providence preserving and governing us; His searching, penetrating, sad discriminating dealings with ourselves become a daily worship and solemn joy to us. It seems sometimes as if all other lives were preserved and governed for our good, for our trial and temptation, for our probation and benefit, for our reward or punishment; so completely may we come under this great law of God's government, that ~we shall seem to ourselves to be the very centre of all God's providential dealings, a centre towards which "all things work together for good." It is not if so much by a dialectic, and philosophical, and theological mind that these things are apprehended; it is in the quick and responsive conscience, and in His holy providences. " I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and the new and ever wakeful heart, that God makes the clearest discoveries of earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."

1. A great lesson lies for us in the very etymology of the leading word. It speaks to us of One who sees our way before we have trode it. One moreover who has taken on Himself to provide all we need as we travel the way He has appointed us. Even the heathen world had some hold of this truth, and hence the most thoughtful and devout among them taught and practised augury and divination, grounding their inquiries into the mind and will of God on the assurance that He had a mind and purpose about every man and his lot and way in life. And thus Paul speaks to the Athenians of all nations seeking God, if haply they might find Him. The doctrines and the experience of Providence have taught us that God is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being.

2. For those who say they are waiting on providence to discover their duty. Providences are not appointed as guides in life. They show God's path rather than point out ours. It is not His purpose, hidden in a decree or fulfilled in a providence, that is our role of faith and life, not His word. "We are not to go in businesses merely by providences, for we shall find that oftentimes providences do lay fair occasions for sinning. When Jonah was to go to Tarshish, he had the fairest providences that could be; he found a ship all ready; ay, but be went against the word of God. Never be ruled by providences, they may be temptations and probations; be ruled by the word alone" (Goodwin).

3. "The providence of God in the lives of men is to each one in particular a private revelation of His love" (Faber).

4. The Scriptures are full of assurances and illustrations of the consoling truth that grace mingles with all providences, and carries them out to her own blessed ends. In a multitude of passages, we are assured that our Redeemer is our King and Protector (John 17:1, 2; Romans 8:28; Revelation 7:5-3).


1. In connection with the reference to "Second Causes" in the Notes, let ths student study Aristotle's analysis and classification of Causes, which will be found in his Works, in Calderwood's Fleming, or in any Philosophical Dictionary.

2. Cicero says: Great things the gods care for, small things they neglect. Contrast this with our Lord's teaching on the same subject.

3. Let the devout student ponder Confession, V. 5, and say if his own experience verifies the truth there taught.

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