Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
WSC 11 of 107
1 The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD. 2 All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits. 3 Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.Proverbs 16:1-3
WSC 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are, His most holy,1 wise,2 and powerful preserving3 and governing all His creatures, and all their actions.41 Ps 145:17; 2 Ps 104:24; Isa 28:29; 3 Heb 1:3; 4 Ps 103:19; Mt 10:29-31.
We are in a series of messages based on the Westminster Short Catechism. A few studies earlier, we noted how God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence (WSC 8). We have already seen how God created the world in six days, and how He created man. We must now consider God’s works of providence.
The word ‘providence’ comes from the Latin verb providere. This is a compound word of two parts: pro meaning ‘before’ and videre meaning ‘see.’ So providere means to “see beforehand” or to “provide for.”
But God sees everything beforehand because He decreed everything. Thus, God’s “works of providence” speaks of His bringing to pass what He has decreed and so foreknown.
To do so, He needs to keep everything He has made in existence and bring every movement and action to pass. He does so by His almighty power, according to His wisdom and holy purpose.
By this power, He controls everything in the universe—from quarks to galaxies. The Lord Jesus affirms this truth when He says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Mt 10:30). Conversely, the psalmist says, “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names” (Ps 147:4).
Now, most people do not react immediately when we talk about God being in control of atoms and stars. It may be that they will object after they think about it for a while, but most are okay with letting the assertion sit quietly. However, our Catechism teaches a much more extensive scope regarding providence.
Indeed, if we understand providence correctly, we will see that it touches every aspect of our life. The apostle Paul affirms in Acts 17:28 that “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being.”
If this is true, then you are listening to (or reading) this sermon because God has ordained, from before the foundation of the world, that you should be doing so now. You could have chosen to do many other things. You could have chosen to listen to a more profitable preacher. But for some strange reasons, or more accurately in God’s providence, you were led to choose to do what you are doing.
And God has also ordained that at this particular moment in the history of the universe, you should be hearing me say these things to you, just as He has ordained that I should be speaking what I am saying at the moment.
He has preserved me in existence. He has preserved you in existence. He has kept you alive. He has kept me alive. He sovereignly ordered your movement and brought you here by His power, wisdom and holiness. He sovereignly ordered my life and brought me to speak as I am speaking by His power, wisdom and holiness.
But is this a proper understanding of the providence of God? Is this really taught in Scripture? What about the free will of man? Don’t we make choices? And don’t we sin? Does God bring about our sinful actions? If so, why are we held responsible for our sins? If God brings about our sinful actions by His providential power, isn’t He the author of our sin? Then isn’t it unfair of Him to condemn us for our sins?
In this study, we hope to answer some of these questions by looking at the inspired word of God in the first three verses of Proverbs 16.
From these verses, we may derive three propositions, the first of which is:
1. Man Purposes, God Disposes
The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD.Prov 16:1
Now, the KJV translation of this verse is a little awkward. It seems to suggest that whatever we think or say is from the Lord. However, almost every other translation, ancient or modern, and almost every commentator understands the “and” as a disjunctive and reads the verse as, “The preparations of the heart is in man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”
This agrees with verse 9: “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.”
Understood in this way, the proverb is essentially saying, as Matthew Henry puts it: “Man proposes, God disposes.”
Practically, what this means is that while we may have plans and decisions, ultimately, it is God who brings to pass whatever comes to pass. Man is not in ultimate control of what he says or does.
Theologically, this means that man may think, plan and decide, but ultimately it is God’s plan that prevails.
Why does God’s plan prevail? God’s plan prevails because, in the first place, all things that ever will happen have been decreed by God. In the second place, all things that happen are brought to pass by God’s providential will.
Man is made with rationality and the ability to exercise his will based on his desires. But ultimately, whatever happens, whatever he says, and whatever he is, are exactly as God has decreed. Man cannot frustrate the plan of God.
The prophet Balaam provides us with an illustration of this. He wanted to curse Israel because Balak employed him to do so. But each time he opened his mouth, he blessed Israel instead. Balaam’s experience is, of course, unique. Most times, we decide what to say, and we say it. Therefore, we think that we speak freely and independently. However, Solomon is saying that this is not the case. Instead, he is saying that even when we speak precisely according to the desires of our heart, whatever we say comes from the LORD. In other words, every time we speak, and every time we do anything, God’s secret will is being fulfilled.
Solomon says elsewhere:
There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the LORD, that shall stand.Prov 19:21
The counsel is the decree of God. God’s decree and providence do not only concern inanimate objects and irrational creatures. They also concern moral creatures. Though we do not sense it, we are under God’s sovereign, providential control. And God is working out everything in His providence according to His almighty power, wisdom and holiness. This is the only way all things can work together for good to them that love Him, who are called according to His purpose.
Nothing that man does or say is contrary to God’s secret will.
But if that is so, how can God hold us responsible for our sins? This is a question I believe that many of us would have asked, and often we do not get an adequate answer. Well, Solomon anticipates this question in the next verse, where he insists that while man weighs the options, God weighs the spirit.
2. Man Weighs the Options; God Weighs the Spirit
All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits.Prov 16:2
In other words, man is always partial when judging himself. We always think that our intentions are right, our purpose is good, and our judgement is correct. However, our judgement of ourselves may be wrong and is not as important as God’s judgement of our hearts.
Isn’t it true that we are almost always right in our eyes? This is so much so that the Lord Jesus teaches us to avoid judging another person because we can always see the speck in his eye, but we cannot see the beam in our own eye!
But now, let us understand that this verse says something more profound than that. Theologically, it teaches us how man weighs the options while God weighs the intention.
Or let me put it this way: every time we make a decision, we actually weigh the options and choose one which we conclude will make us happiest. So we look at the options available and choose the most beneficial and least detrimental to us.
So, for example, when you enter a worship hall, you have many options for where to sit. Why do you choose the particular seat you end up sitting on? Well, if you think about it, you actually weigh the options. You need a seat where you can sit together with your family or your friend, so you automatically rule out the single empty seats. Then you feel that the front rows are very intimidating because the pastor may stare you in the eyes, so you rule out the first ten rows unless you have discovered that the pastor will only look at the last few rows, in which case you may rule out the last few rows, etc. The point is, even in the simple matter of where you will sit, you are making a deliberate choice. Your will does not act independently of your intellect.
You always have a choice. If a robber holds you up, puts a knife to your throat, and says: “Your life or your wallet?” Do you have a choice? Of course, you do! You can choose to give him the wallet, or you let him take your life if you think that without your wallet, you can’t live. You always have a choice.
This is true for all the decisions you must make, whether big or small. Which church to join? Who to marry? What school to attend? What job to take? What to say at a juncture in a conversation? Whether to keep listening to this discussion? Etc.
Let us understand that though we may not think about it, God will hold us accountable for every choice. Some of our choices will involve matters of indifference. But some choices will have moral implications as being right or wrong. This is what Solomon means when he says that “the LORD weigheth the spirit.”
Or, to put it in another way: We were asking the question, How can God hold us responsible if all our words or actions are ordained of God? Well, the answer is here. The answer is that whether an action or word is sinful or not depends on the person’s intention, which is known unto God because He searches our hearts.
Think about it this way. If a monkey were to take a gun and shoots a person, would you say that the monkey has sinned? Of course not! A monkey is not made in the image of God. It is not a moral creature.
But, supposing Mr Golf takes a gun and shoots Miss Kilo, and kills her. Would you say that Mr Golf has sinned? What if I told you that Miss Kilo is an armed robber and Mr Golf is a policeman responding to the robbery? To know whether an act is a sin, you must know the subject’s intention.
Here is the point. God holds us responsible because although He ordained everything that comes to pass, the intention belongs to the doer. The intention makes an act, a word, or even a thought a sin or not a sin.
Think of the brothers of Joseph. Did they sin when they sold Joseph into Egypt? Of course, they did. But were they not doing God’s secret will to save many alive? Yes, but that was not in their thought at all! Thus, Joseph says to them, in Genesis 50:20—“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
Or think about how God made use of the Babylonians as instruments to chastise Judah. Judah had apostatised, so God sent the Babylonians. The Babylonians committed great atrocities against the Jews. Was their act sinful? Of course! Weren’t they doing the will of God? Yes, but it was not in their mind at all to do God’s will. They attacked Judah out of greed and pride, and showed no mercy. Therefore, God declared through the prophets that He would punish them (e.g. Isa 47:6).
Likewise, think of Judas Iscariot. Christ went to the cross partly because of his betrayal. Should he not then be regarded as a hero, as some suggest? Of course not, for his betrayal of the Lord was not at all motivated by any selfless reasons. Indeed, the Lord says:
The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.Mt 26:24
Judas Iscariot sinned grievously.
Can you see the point? God had ordained that Judas Iscariot should betray Christ in the fullness of time. God brought Judas into existence, appointed him as an apostle, and preserved and supported his faculties to enable him to do what he did. Indeed, his very act was ordained by God, and brought to pass by God’s sovereign providence. The motive and intention of God were good. They are always good.
On the other hand, the motive and intention of Judas were evil. They were his own wicked intention that stemmed out of greed and unbelief. God did not implant them. God is not the author of sin.
Therefore, God is perfectly just to condemn Judas! Can you see the principle? Man weighs the options; God weighs the Spirit. Sin is condemned as sin because the doer’s intention makes it sinful or righteous.
With this, we can clearly see how God’s providence operates. God decrees all things and brings all things to pass. Every movement and motion are comprehended under God’s providence. Even the actions of man, which man seems to choose freely, are ordained and brought to pass by God. And that does not contradict the fact that God will hold us responsible for our sins. Indeed, Solomon will go on in verse 4 to say: “The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov 16:4).
God is working out His plans with His mighty power, wisdom and holiness. He is bringing glory to His own name and good to His people through His providence. His plan includes the wicked and their wicked deeds.
But this leads us to a final question: Does this mean that everything is fated? I once heard a preacher say that predestination is essentially fate. Everything is fated because God decreed everything and carries out His decrees invariably. What’s wrong then with thinking that everything is fated, and so we should not worry too much: Whatever will be, will be, be happy! Live and let live!
Well, the answer is, I believe, hinted in the next verse, from which we may derive the principle that prayer changes not God, but it changes our hearts.
3. Prayer Changes Not God, But It Changes Our Hearts
Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.v. 3
Now, the straightforward meaning of this verse is that if we commit our plans unto God in prayer, then our thoughts on the matter will be established. We shall not be tossed to and fro, and we shall not be filled with doubts and anxieties.
But let’s look a little deeper.
In the first place, what is prayer? According to question 98 of the Shorter Catechism, prayer is: “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.”
Notice how prayer involves telling God our desires and therefore petitioning Him to do according to our desire so long as it is agreeable to His will.
What does prayer do? The apostle John says:
14 And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: 15 And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.1 Jn 5:14-15
Prayer, in other words, is efficacious as long as it follows God’s will. Is this God’s revealed will or His secret will? Well, God’s secret will is secret, so there is no way for us to know whether we are praying according to His secret will. Thus, both John and our Catechism must be speaking about God’s revealed will. If this is so, John is suggesting that we can have confidence when we pray that God will answer our prayers and give us the desires of our hearts. Now, this is an amazing thought. If we pray aright, not to be consumed in our own lusts and pray according to God’s will, we will have our desires.
But how can this be? God’s providence is strictly the outworking of His sovereign decree. How, then, can it be that by prayer, we can change the course of providence? How can we change God’s mind?
The simple answer is that we do not, and we cannot change God’s mind. It is meaningless to talk about changing God’s providence because providence is the unfolding of God’s secret will, which is fixed. If that is so, how can it be that we can have what we desire in prayer?
To answer the question, we need to remind ourselves that God’s providence comprehends everything, including our prayers. This is where it becomes mysterious and complicated.
God is the first cause of everything. Whatever happens, happens because God brings it to pass. But God’s providence also comprehends secondary causes. If you push a chair and the chair topples over, you are the secondary cause. Providence covers both your pushing the chair and the chair toppling over.
Now, effectual prayer is like that. God ordains both the prayer and the effect of the prayer. This is one of the reasons why we say providence is not fate. Fate is mechanical and blind. On the other hand, Providence is God working out His plan in power, wisdom and holiness.
Now, as soon as we understand the relationship between prayer and providence, then we begin to get a deeper understanding of what Solomon is saying in verse 3:
Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.
To commit your works unto the LORD is to pray. When you pray, two things happen. First, if your prayer is according to the will of God, then the answer is also ordained of God; and you will find great comfort in seeing how things are working out according to your heart’s desire. But Secondly, even if your prayer is not in accordance with God’s will or you pray amiss, at least you will better appreciate that God is in control, and so even if things do not happen as you desire, you can have peace in your heart.
Can you see how prayer changes not God, but it changes your heart? Prayer always establishes your heart when you are clear that God is a God of providence who is powerfully bringing to pass His eternal plans.
We have considered a very important work of God known as providence. We saw that “God’s works of providence are, His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions.”
In simple terms, providence is God sovereignly bringing everything that He has decreed to pass. In this regard, we considered three propositions:
- Man purposes, God disposes
- Man weighs the options; God weighs the spirit.
- Prayer changes not God, but it changes our hearts.
I hope you will take away these three thoughts because they will help you understand providence vis-a-vis the freedom of the human will. But before we end, let me leave you two questions that are not so profound for you to ask yourself as we leave this subject.
First, do you genuinely believe that God is sovereignly in control of all things and that He is working everything out for your good and for His own glory? This is a question I have to ask myself because I often find myself entertaining great disappointments. I get disappointed with myself. I get disappointed with people around me. I get disappointed with how things turn out. If I genuinely believe that providence is unfolding under God’s powerful, wise and holy hands, I should not allow disappointments to overwhelm my heart.
Beloved brethren and youths, do you believe that God is sovereignly unfolding providence with his powerful, wise and holy hands; and that He is doing so for His own glory and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose? If so, will you not run on in His strength? Will you not seek first His kingdom rather than wallow in disappointments? May the Lord of providence help us do better.
Secondly, I did not mention earlier, but do you realise that God has committed the work of providence to Christ Jesus our King? Do you realise that it is the hand of Christ that is unfolding providence? This is what the apostle to the Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 1:2-3:
God, … 2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; 3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Can you see how Christ is the heir of all things, and is upholding all things by the word of His power? What is the significance of knowing the fact that it is Christ Jesus who is unfolding providence? Does it matter to you? Well, to me, it matters immensely. Let me give you five brief reasons.
- First, I am encouraged by the fact that the King is my elder brother. I know He will represent me well because I am His adoptive brother and beloved by our heavenly Father.
- Secondly, I am assured that my King does love me deeply because He laid down His life for me. I am confident He will never allow anything bad for me to happen.
- Thirdly, I am cheered by the fact that my King lived thirty-three years in the world that I lived in, and so He knows what I need and will not overlook anything that will conduce to my good.
- Fourthly, I am comforted that my King was tempted in all points, like I am, yet without sin. I know He will rule with compassion because He understands my struggles. He will deal with me compassionately.
- Finally, I am thrilled by the prospect of being a joint heir with Christ. His union with the church is so close that as He reigns, we will reign with Him one day. I don’t know how it will be, but I know it will be so.
Beloved brethren and children, Christ your King, your saviour, your elder brother, your head, your shepherd, the lover of your soul, has been appointed the Governor over all creation and providence. Can you see the great advantage that God has accorded you?
If so, thank God, and remember to look to Him at every changing scene of life. Look to Him when you are disappointed by men. Man will disappoint, but Christ never fails. Look to Him when things do not turn out as you expected. Remember that Christ has ordered it and is bringing it to pass with consideration for your good and the Father’s glory.
But if you are still a stranger to Christ, may I remind you that whether you believe it or not, He is still on the throne. One day, He will return to judge the world. On that day, He will vindicate His saints, but all who remain in unbelief will be condemned to eternal damnation.
But today, He is still beckoning sinners to Himself. He is ordering providence so that the sheep and lambs that He laid His life down for would come to hear His voice through the preaching of His word.
It is not by chance that you are listening to the preaching of His word. You are here because He brought you Here by His providence. I don’t know if you are indeed His sheep. But I know that out of millions who need to hear the gospel, God appointed you to hear it. Oh, will you not hear Him? Will you not acknowledge your sin and come to Him in humility?
He is a compassionate saviour. He will not cast out anyone who comes to Him in sincerity. All that the Father giveth unto me will come unto me, and he that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out, says the Lord. So come. Come quickly. “28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” He says (Mt 11:28).
The Lord is weighing your spirit. Your ways are clean in your own eyes. But remember that it is not what you think that matters, but what God thinks. And God sees in your heart all your sin and failures. You are unlovely. You deserve to be cast away like rotten fruit. But the Lord has given you an opportunity to come to Him. Oh, will you not go to him? Cry out to Him for forgiveness. Commit your way to Him, and your thoughts will be established today and forever. Amen.