A confessing community: The providential God

The South African church community was recently thrust into the limelight when Pastor Alph Lukau staged the resurrection of Brighton Moyo. Some reports suggest that this was not the first time that Mr. Moyo was involved in a staged miracle. The Internet was in an uproar with many calling for criminal charges to be levelled against Pastor Lukau. The CRL Rights Commission reinforced calls for parliament to implement legislation that would allow the Commission to regulate religion and religious workers in the country. As always, sceptics used the scandal to laugh off any notion of the supernatural.

The Sola 5 Confession directly addresses the concept of the supernatural when it reads,

In the providential outworking of his decree, God ordinarily works in an orderly, regular way, so that certain causes consistently produce the same effects (Psalm 104; Isaiah 55:10–11; Acts 27:22, 31, 44). (This we call ordinary providence.) However, God is also free to work differently so that the normal relationships of cause and effect are temporarily suspended (Exodus 3:2–3; 2 Kings 6:6; Daniel 3:27; Luke 1:34–35; Romans 4:19–21). (This we call extraordinary providence.) Recognising God’s ordinary and extraordinary providence is essential to the proper exercise of human responsibility in humble dependence on God. (Sola 5 Confession 1.4)

Christianity is, at its core, a supernatural faith. It is founded on historical claims of the Creator taking on flesh, dying on a cross, and rising again from the dead three days later. Without the resurrection—a supernatural feat—the entire Christian faith crumbles. But that does not mean that Christianity finds miracles under every rock. Instead, as God “providentially” carries out “his decree,” he “ordinarily works in an orderly, regular way, so that certain causes consistently produce the same effects.”

This is the way that the Creator has ordered the universe. Psalm 104 highlights this truth. We know that, as things ordinarily work, even given high and low tides, the ocean does not cross certain invisible boundaries (see vv. 8–9). We consider it an “act of God” when tsunamis violate this law of nature. According to Psalm 104, God put this law into place. God has ordered things so that animals are ordinarily fed and watered by the springs and rivers that God has put in place, rather than by angels descending with bowls of iced water (vv. 10–11). God has ordered things so that ordinary farming methods produce food for human beings (vv. 14–15). The water cycle (Isaiah 55:10–11), the regular ordering of the seasons, and the daily cycle of day and night are all orderly, regular ways in which God has worked so that certain causes consistently produce the same effects. They are predictable.

But it is not only the ordering of nature that works this way. Human beings also rely on cause and effect. For example, when Paul was in a shipwreck, he and his fellow travellers could not simply expect divine deliverance. Instead, they needed to follow ordinary steps to ensure their safety (Acts 27:22, 31, 44).

It is crucial to understand that “God ordinarily works in an orderly, regular way.” This is so for at least three reasons.

First, if we do not understand this truth, we may easily grow disillusioned with God when he does not work miraculously. Perhaps a loved one falls ill with a dread disease, and we wrongly expect God to heal him. When he doesn’t do so, we can feel as if God has failed us because he hasn’t fulfilled our expectations, when in fact our expectations have no biblical basis.

Second, failure to embrace this truth may result in failure to fulfil our human responsibility because we expect miraculous intervention. Our unfounded expectation that God will heal out loved one may prevent us from pursuing all options for medical intervention—methods that God has actually prescribed to assist with medical conditions. An individual may expect God to miraculously provide for his needs, and thereby fail to exercise wisdom in labouring hard and investing wisely for the future, which is how God ordinarily provides for his people.

Third, not recognising this truth may lead us to ascribe ordinary providence to something other than divine power. Even if our loved one is healed through medical intervention, we should ultimately recognise that it is God who used that medical intervention to heal. Ordinary providence is not somehow divorced from God. The Bible teaches that God uses ordinary providence to accomplish his will, not that things happen either by ordinary or extraordinary providence. The two are different, but God is in control of both.

Reformed Christians sometimes have knee-jerk reactions to claims of extraordinary providence. While this is, at times, understandable given obvious abuses in hyper-Charismatic contexts, we nevertheless affirm that “God is also free to work differently so that the normal relationships of cause and effect are temporarily suspended.” It is important to recognise this, for several reasons.

First, we want to avoid unhealthy, suspicious scepticism when someone testifies of something genuinely miraculous that God has done in their life. While there is biblical warrant for severe scepticism regarding Pastor Lukau’s claims of resurrection power, there are plenty of times when we want to avoid such scepticism.

I remember reading the testimony of a young woman who contracted an exotic disease, which wracked her body with debilitating pain for months on end. She pursued every medical avenue available but to no avail. One night, in sheer desperation, she pleaded with God in prayer to remove the disease. The next day, she woke up, for the first time in months, completely free of pain. When I first read her testimony, I recall being sceptical, until it struck me that there really is no cause for scepticism. Why should it be considered unusual that God would hear and answer the faith-filled prayer of one of his daughters and miraculously deliver her?

Second, we do not want to limit God beyond how he has “limited” himself in the Bible. It may sound strange to talk about God limiting himself, but there is a sense in which he has done so by his promises. For example, when someone repents of their sin, there is but one way that God can respond: by faithfully and justly forgiving the sinner (1 John 1:9). Because he has promised to do so, he cannot choose not to do so.

But we can sometimes limit God beyond how he has done so. For example, we may be persuaded from Scripture that, because we have his complete, sufficient word, he will not ordinarily speak to us in other ways. But we need to be careful of limiting him in this way. So, for example, when we hear testimonies of unreached Muslims receiving dreams as a catalyst for them finding a missionary, who ultimately shares the gospel with them, we have no good reason to be sceptical. God may not ordinarily speak to us through dreams, but he certainly can do so if it serves his gospel purposes.

Third, we must be encouraged to pray fervently and faithfully for God to work miraculously when there is no other avenue of hope. When your loved one is given no hope by the doctor, or when the missionary is guaranteed by government officials that there is no way they will have a visa renewed, go to the Lord in prayer.

Consider the testimony of one Sola 5 church, located in the inner city, which was assured by realtors that their building was worthless and they would never get what they wanted for it. They went to God in fervent prayer, and not only were they offered far more than they reasonably expected, but they managed to purchase a new building in an ideal location for far less than it was worth, leaving them sufficient cash to do the renovations they needed to do. Not only that, but through a string of extraordinary providences, they were able to secure the various council permissions they needed to proceed with the renovations at no charge! God may not ordinarily work that way, but he certainly can, and we should be encouraged to pray for him to work in extraordinary ways.

At this point, a word of caution may be helpful: We can sometimes be guilty confusing ordinary and extraordinary providences. We sometimes use the word “miracle” far too flippantly. A miracle is an act of God whereby he suspends or overrides the ordinary laws of nature that he has put in place to accomplish something that could not be accomplished apart from such direct, divine intervention. We sometimes use the words in a far looser way than we should.

For example, we sometimes refer to conception and childbirth as a “miracle,” when in fact these wonderful occurrences actually just follow the laws of nature that God has put into place. We consider it a “miracle” to find a parking place right near the entrance of a busy shopping centre on a Saturday at the end of the month, but there is nothing miraculous about that—unless, perhaps, the vehicle in your desired parking spot miraculously levitates and floats away to make space for you!

A miracle is when medical professionals say that there is no hope of healing from your dread disease and yet God answers prayer and heals completely apart from medical intervention. A miracle is when an unbeliever, dead in trespasses and sins, responds by grace to the preaching of the gospel contrary to fallen human nature.

The Confession concludes that “recognising God’s ordinary and extraordinary providence is essential to the proper exercise of human responsibility in humble dependence upon God.” This simply summarises what we have already said. It means that, when that dread disease diagnosis is made, you investigate every medical avenue available while at the same time praying fervently for healing, even calling upon the elders of the church to do so (James 5:13–15). It means that, in a neighbourhood riddled with crime, you take whatever security and insurance steps necessary to safeguard against loss while at the same time trusting God for your safety and the protection of your worldly goods.

On the one hand, because of abundant abuses, it is reasonable to be somewhat sceptical of claims of “extraordinary providences.” On the other hand, we cannot deny that God can and does work outside of our normal expectations to perform “extraordinary providences.” It is not always easy to know which way to respond, though if the claim to extraordinary providence elevates a person other than the God of the Bible, or detracts attention from the gospel, there is good reason to be sceptical of it. Above all, we must not allow a quest for extraordinary providences to override our allegiance to the absolute truth of God’s written word, which is sufficient for determining God’s will and validating God’s servants.

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