Sunday, June 15, 2014

C3. God is in control of everything that happens.

The theology in bullet points series continues in the section on the creation. Last post here.
God is in control of everything that happens in the world.

We have already discussed this topic from the standpoint of God's knowledge. We have also indicated that love is God's ultimate disposition toward the creation and that his justice fits within the context of his love. Now we want to visit it from the standpoint of the creation and God's "providence" or strategic direction of everything within it.

Since God created the universe out of nothing. God has power over everything that he has created. He is sovereign over the creation and is thus in charge. God has ultimate authority over the universe, and nothing happens in the universe without his direction or permission.

The question arises, though, as to how directive God is in relation to the creation. Some would argue that God is not in control if humans can disobey him, but this is an anemic sense of control. If God wants us to grow and mature, if God prefers for us to make the right choice on our own rather than be forced to make certain choices, then he will give us the possibility of disobeying him. God is not intimidated or infuriated when we disobey him. [1] Because God is indeed the supreme authority, he has the authority to let us rebel.

We thus should not think of everything that happens in the universe as a result of God's directive will. God's directive will is his will when it directly or indirectly causes something to happen in the universe. Everything that happens in the universe happens with his permission, to be sure. If you look at the story of Job, Satan is not allowed to touch Job without God signing off on it.

But God, in his sovereignty, allows for some decisions to originate from the creation itself. That is to say, many things happen in the creation as a result of his permissive will, as events that he allows rather than specifically commands. So some things happen in the creation as a result of God's directive will, and some things happen as a result of his permissive will. God's strategic leadership of the creation in both of these ways taken together, is his providence for the creation.

It is hard to know the precise formula of the combination of God's directive and permissive will. For the Calvinist tradition, everything that happens is a result of his directive will. I personally would suggest that, technically, only miracles are a matter of God's directive will, where a miracle is an instance where God interrupts the normal cause-effect chain of events by directive action.

We do not know how often God intervenes in this way. By this definition, any answer to prayer is a miracle because it involves God acting in a way that changes the normal cause-effect course of events. Miracles are when God interrupts the normal cause-effect flow of events. God has created natural laws that play out without his direct command. He does not have to instruct gravity to work. He did that on the day of creation. Yet even when God allows cause and effect to play out, his providence is involved because he decides in every case whether to intervene or not.

God obviously would not need our prayers if prayer was about informing God of what was happening (since he knows everything). And since God knows what is going on far better than us, it would be more logical for him simply to sort things out on his own. Surely, then, prayer is more for our benefit than it is for God. We need to pray. God does not need us to pray.

As a sign of God's immense favor toward us, God has actually allowed us to have an effect on what he does. Perhaps there are times when God has decided that he will do one thing if we pray and another if we do not. In that sense, God has sovereignly decided to let his action in the world at times be contingent on whether we pray or not.

Grace is the most important element of God's providence toward the creation. Grace is unearned favor that God shows toward us. [2] All the creation experiences what John Calvin called "common grace" in the goodness that is available us to us everyday in sunlight and rain, food to eat and water to drink. The goodness of the creation, even though marred by evil, still offers countless opportunities for our basic human needs to be met and for us to have moments of joy and happiness.

Yet John Wesley also argued that there is another kind of spiritual grace that God offers us all, "prevenient grace" [3] This is God's grace that reaches out to reconcile us even when we do not know him and are not seeking him. Indeed, Wesley would say that we would never seek him if his grace did not first reach out to us.

This model of grace is different from that of Calvin, who only believed that God reached out to those whom he had already chosen. And Calvin did not see that grace as reaching out, looking for a voluntary response, but Calvin believed that God's grace was irresistible and inevitably forced a person to choose him. You might say that, for Calvin, God's grace that leads to reconciliation with us is an "on-off" switch. God either turns it on and we are saved, or God leaves it off and we remain eternally damned.

For Wesley, the light was more like a dimmer switch. God empowered us enough to make the smallest of movements toward him. The more we receive the light, the more light we receive. In that sense, Wesley could believe that our default moral state is "totally depraved" or totally without the capacity for goodness and yet also believe that whether or not we came to God was a function of our human choice. [4]

God's providence involves a direction for the creation. That direction is ultimately to reconcile humanity to himself. He desires for all humanity to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but he will not force anyone to be saved. He thus works all things together for good for those who love him (Rom. 8:28), which is ultimately their eternal redemption. But he will also eternally abandon those who do not choose him (Rom. 1:18, 28).

This is God's ultimate providence. The extent to which he intervenes in our everyday lives is much more of a mystery. We can assume that nothing that happens conflicts with his overall plan. We can assume that he has allowed everything that happens to us. But we probably should not assume that every event in itself that happens has some deep purpose associated with it, as much as we may find this thought comforting. [5]

God is in control of everything that happens. Some things he causes directly. Some things he allows to happen. He does everything from love and everything in the end will work out his plan for the universe.

Next week: C4. Angels and Demons

[1] These images are anthropomorphic.

[2] Often called "unmerited favor." The acronym, "God's Riches At Christ's Expense" is also used, but arguably there is more to God's grace toward the creation than the specific grace that is a result of Christ's sacrificial death.

[3] Wesley called it "preventing grace," but "prevenient grace" is the term now most often used.

[4] To put it in more technical terms, Calvin was a "monergist," believing that only God did the work that leads us to Christ. Wesley was a "synergist," who believed our wills had to work together with God's will in a way independent of God's coercion.

[5] No matter how popular Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) may have been, it does not seem to be sound theology.

No comments: