When a word, phrase, or Bible verse repeatedly pops up in my Bible studies and conversations, I’ve learned over the years to pay attention. Lately, the topic of God’s providence keeps coming up. I knew providence was somehow related to His sovereignty—which I’m familiar with—however, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to understand what is providence? Does it differ from sovereignty? And as I dug deeper, I was curious to learn how God’s providence coincides with our free will. Do you have similar questions? I hope this post will bring clarity and encourage you.
What is God’s providence?
The word “providence” is found sparingly in some English Bibles. I checked several translations on the Blue Letter Bible website and the word came up once in the KJV in Acts 24:2 and another time in the NIV in Job 10:12. Even though the word itself seldom occurs in Scripture, the doctrine of God’s providence is woven throughout the Bible. Simply put, providence is God working circumstances together to accomplish His purposes.
A biblical example of God’s providence
There are so many examples of God’s providence throughout Scripture, but one of my favorites is the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Many of you are probably familiar with the story. But to quickly summarize, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, which landed him in Egypt. While there, he was falsely accused of a crime and Joseph was sent to prison. After some time, he interpreted a dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who was briefly imprisoned. Years later, Pharaoh himself had a dream that no one could interpret, but the cupbearer remembered Joseph. By God’s grace, Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which warned of a famine to come. As a result, Pharaoh made Joseph his right hand man and Joseph prepared Egypt. And when the famine came, Egypt had an abundance of food, which led Joseph’s family there. After a series of events, his relationship with his brothers was reconciled and they all moved to Egypt.
When we read this exciting narrative in the Bible, we can see that God was going before Joseph. We get to figure out the ending in just a few chapters. But, Joseph lived through abuse, slavery, slander, and imprisonment over the course of many years. After all that time of being rejected and forgotten, in the end, Joseph recognized God’s providence through it all. Genesis 50:20 sums it up so well when Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” This is just one of the many examples of God’s providence in the Bible.
God’s providence in my own life
When I reflect on where I have seen God’s providence in my own life, several memories come to mind. But most recently, I witnessed His providence at work through my book, The Bible in a Year. I prayed to God that if it was His will, that He’d make a way for me to work with a publisher on a book someday. Over a year later, I was approached by my publisher, who heard about me through a connection I had made with another company. That connection was made long before I even prayed that first prayer. After all this time, I can see that God was working in and through my circumstances to accomplish His will even when I couldn’t see it. I know I’ve shared this a fair amount with my community, so sorry if I sound like a broken record! But, reflecting on His providence through this recent experience continues to leave me in awe of His sovereignty.
How does providence differ from sovereignty?
As I pondered and began studying God’s providence, I struggled to see the difference between providence and sovereignty. However, as I dug deeper, it became clearer to me that while these two truths about God are closely related, there is a distinction. I began to see that God’s sovereignty refers to His complete control over all things and His providence is the way He orchestrates all things according to His will. A wise woman in my life put it in even simpler terms: Sovereign is who He is, providence is what He does. God’s sovereign will is accomplished through His good and wise providence.
This means, God is never out of control. He is working all things together for a greater good—His perfect will. The greatest good He providentially accomplishes in the lives of believers is salvation in Christ. Looking back on my own life, I can see how God used my circumstances to communicate the Gospel message to me and prepared my heart for the day I would finally receive the good news that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to save sinners. I learned that all who repent and believe in Christ as Lord and Savior are given eternal life and do not have to fear when He returns to judge the living and the dead—our salvation is secure in Him! (Mark 1:15, Acts 17:30-31, 1 John 5:11-13)
Sometimes we will get to see His providence clearly in our lives—like in the circumstances that led us to receive Christ, or experiences like what happened with my book. But, His providence goes even further beyond our individual lives, circumstances, and outcomes. Ultimately, He is sovereignly working all things together for His glory and to providentially prepare all things for Christ’s return! (Ephesians 1:11)
What about free will?
So like me, you might be wondering how God’s providence coincides with free will. While much of this remains a mystery, we do see examples of both these realities throughout the Bible. I’m sure entire books have been written on this subject alone, but I’ll attempt to put it simply here. (I encourage you to do more digging into this yourself if you have more questions!)
Simply put, God is fully in control and we remain responsible for our actions. Going back to Joseph’s story, we see this clearly. God allowed Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery in order for Joseph to go to Egypt and save many from the famine, and ultimately, become a foreshadowing of the deliverance that would come through Christ. Even though God used their sin to accomplish a greater good, the brothers still needed to repent of their sins. What’s incredible, is how God not only can use good in this world, but He can even take our sin and the things that fall outside of His moral will to accomplish His sovereign will.
We even see free will and God’s providence play out in Christ’s death when God used Judas Iscariot’s betrayal to send Jesus to the cross. (Luke 22:22) This was the greatest injustice of all time, yet God used it to fulfill biblical prophecy and save all who repent and believe in Him.
Clinging to what we know
This short explanation may not satisfy all of your questions on free will vs. God’s providence. However, when we don’t fully understand a biblical truth, we can always cling to what we do know: God is sovereign. This article on GotQuestions.org sums it up so well: If God is not sovereign, then He’s not really God. Why? If our free will can trump His divine providence, then who ultimately is God? We are. Divine providence does not destroy our freedom. Rather, divine providence takes our freedom into account and, in the infinite wisdom of God, sets a course to fulfill God’s will.
God is providentially working all things together to accomplish His sovereign will. How does the truth of God’s providence encourage or challenge you today? How might this reality cause you to think and live differently?
For me personally, the truths of God’s providence and sovereignty shape my thoughts and emotions in response to the chaos of world events. Things feel out of control, but when we cling to what we know, we can find peace in knowing God is still on His throne and He is still fully in control. We may not be able to see how, but we know that He is working all things together for His glory and for the good of those who love Him. (Ephesians 1:11, Romans 8:28) And of course, these truths increase my hope in the Gospel! Nothing can thwart God’s plan to save sinners or stop His return! He is all-powerful and true to His Word.
As born again believers, we should respond to God’s providence by:
- Confidently trusting fully in God’s providence.
- Committing our works to God. (Proverbs 16:3)
- Encouraging others with the truth of God’s providence.
- Praying for continued dependence on God and that His will, not ours be done. (Matthew 6:9-13)
If you would like to learn more on your own about God’s providence, check out the links in the notes below.
Today’s Shop Picks
-  Video: What comfort does the doctrine of providence bring to Christians during difficult times? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP0t4yoeAXs |
-  Article: What is divine providence? https://www.gotquestions.org/divine-providence.html |
-  Torrey’s New Topical Textbook: The Providence of God https://www.blueletterbible.org/search/dictionary/viewtopic.cfm?topic=TT0000461
Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.