Providence and the Counterintuitive Wonders of God

Sam Storms:

It’s only one word, Providence, but it is indescribably rich and complex and challenging and comforting. It is also the title to John Piper’s most recent book (Crossway, 2020, 751pp.).

Piper defines providence as God’s “purposeful sovereignty.” In other words, it is more than mere sovereignty. It is more than power or oversight. It is the way in which God directly and intentionally brings about his ultimate aim of glorifying himself.

One of the things that you will read from John is his emphasis on what he calls “counterintuitive wonders” (14). These wonders of how God governs the world “are not illogical or contradictory, but they are different from our usual ways of seeing the world – so different that our first reaction is often to say, ‘That can’t be.’ But the ‘can’t’ is in our minds, not in reality” (14).

Right from the start of this massive and important work, Piper encourages his readers to “let the word of God create new categories of thinking rather than trying to force the Scriptures into the limits of what you already know” (15). In other words, we all too often come to the Bible with our minds made up regarding what is true or false, reasonable or illogical, fair or unfair, and we then unwittingly (or wittingly, at times) force the Bible to conform to our desires and beliefs. But Piper is asking that we overcome “our natural resistance to the strangeness of the ways of God” (15).

Piper’s claim in this book is that the Bible repeatedly declares that “the God whose involvement in his children’s lives and in the world is so pervasive, so all-embracing, and so powerful that nothing can befall them but what he designs for their glorification in him and his glorification in them (2 Thess. 1:12)” (22).

Throughout this book, Piper seeks to answer from the biblical text (not from his own speculations or desires) the extent of divine providence, which is to say, how much and how completely God controls all things, including human beings. Many insist that if God is in complete control, human willing is rendered empty and devoid of moral substance. But Piper contends that “when God turns the human will, there is a mystery to it that causes a person to experience God’s turning as his [the person’s] own preference – an authentic, responsible act of the human will” (24).

If you were hoping that he might explain how God can mysteriously direct and cause all human willing without himself being implicated in the wickedness of the things we choose, and without depriving us of the legitimate reward and praise our actions warrant, he doesn’t. He simply points out, over and over again from Scripture, the truth that God so exerts his exhaustive providential control.

There is far too much in this superb volume to unpack in a singular article. My only aim here is to alert you to its content and hope that it will spur you on to obtain it and spend whatever time is needed to plow your way through it, page by page (and there are 751 of them!).

Following a definition of providence in the opening chapter, Piper speaks to the ultimate goal of providence: before Creation, in Creation, in the History of Israel, and in the Design and Enactment of the New Covenant.

He then turns, in the bulk of the book, to describe the nature and extent of divine providence in nature, over Satan and demons, over kings and nations, over life and death (yes, God determines when you will be born and when you will die), over sin, over conversion, and over Christian living.

Piper’s assumption, one that is repeated in different ways throughout the book, is that “if the Bible teaches clearly and repeatedly that God governs sinful human choices, then he can do it without becoming unholy or unjust or impure or evil” (413). We often cry, “’Contradiction!’ where the Bible sees none. Many insist that humans (not God) must provide the final and decisive cause in the instant of decision, or else the decision cannot be justly praised or blamed. That is, they insist on ultimate human self-determination in the act of choosing, if there is to be moral accountability. The Bible does not share this assumption” (414).

The bottom line of divine providence is that “God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness and holiness and justice, knows how to govern the good and evil choices of all humans without himself sinning and without turning human preferences and choices into morally irrelevant, robot-like actions” (417). Piper again openly and honestly confesses that he does not know how God can do this, but that he does in fact do it is inescapably clear from Scripture.

Some people come to Scripture with a commitment to getting God “off the hook for commanding or purposing or decreeing moral evil. Behind this aim is the assumption that God would be evil to see to it that moral evil happen[s]. I do not share that assumption. People bring that assumption to the Bible; they do not get it from the Bible. The Bible teaches that God absolutely is not evil, and never does evil. And the Bible teaches that God sees to it that evils happen . . . Therefore, I embrace both. This is not a contradiction. If God hasn’t revealed how he can do both, we don’t need to see how” (484).

By this time you should have grasped what Piper means when he speaks of “counterintuitive wonders”!

I’ll close this brief review of Piper’s book with two quotations that sum up his thesis, or better still, the Bible’s thesis on divine providence!

“The nature of this providence is such that the preferences and choices of Satan and man are really their own preferences and their own choices. They are blameworthy or praiseworthy owing to the way they relate to God in faith and to man in justice and love. God’s providence is decisive in what Satan and man decide and do. But it is not coercive. That is, its ordinary way of working is to see to it that Satan and man decide and act in a way that is their own preference, while fulfilling God’s plan at every moment. How God does this may remain a mystery . . . but that he does it is what the Bible teaches” (692).

And finally:

“The providence of God – his purposeful sovereignty – is all-embracing, all-pervasive, and invincible. Therefore, God will be completely successful in the achievement of his ultimate goal for the universe. God’s providence is guided by ‘the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11). This counsel is eternal, all-knowing, and infinitely wise. Its plans and goals, therefore, are perfect, and cannot be improved. They never change. Providence is the purposeful sovereignty that carries those plans into action, guides all things toward God’s ultimate goal, and leads to the final consummation. Job’s prayer is true: ‘You can do all things, and . . . no purpose of yours can be thwarted’ (Job 42:2). Or as God himself states it positively, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa. 46:10)” (691).

If you’re looking for a thoroughly biblical and God-exalting book that will occupy your attention for the rest of the year (and the rest of your life!), this is it.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.