Thomas Watson and Divine Providence – Part 2

a-body-of-divinityIn Thomas Watson’s, A Body of Divinity, his chapter on providence provides the reader with seven propositions concerning Divine providence. These propositions work as a helpful framework to build upon in forming an understanding of the Puritan’s theology of providence. Significantly, these propositions are an excellent illustration of what the Puritan’s did with their theology. After considering these propositions, I will conclude with a brief consideration of Watson’s exhortations that come as a result. This is an indication that for the Puritan’s true theology must lead to a practical divinity. Theology must never be disconnected from practice.

What is Providence?Firstly, Watson states, “God’s providence reaches to all places, persons, and occurrences.”[1] Out of all his propositions, this is the one given the most detail (lasting for about three pages in the Banner of Truth Edition). His point is that there is nothing (place, person or occurrence) that is not affected by providence. Under this proposition, Watson deals with the issue of how sin and providence relate. He says,

“God is the cause of no man’s sin. It is true God has a hand in the action where sin is, but no hand in the sin of the action. A man may play upon a jarring instrument, but the jarring is from itself; so here, the actions of men, so far as they are natural, are from God; but so far as they are sinful, they are from men themselves, and God has no hand at all in them.”[2]

Secondly, he says, “providences, which are casual and accidental to us, are pre-determined by the Lord.”[3] Regardless of what happens around, even though it may look like a random act, is present and happening because of God’s providence.

Thirdly, “God’s providence is greatly to be observed, but we are not to make it the rule of our actions.”[4] Though providence may be useful in understanding why certain things are happening or what the direction might be, it is to never be our authoritative guide. Here Watson makes the point that Providence function like a dairy but certainly is not the believer’s Bible. The Word of God is the authoritative rule and guide for the believer. Providence must always be interpreted through the lens of Scripture. John Frame quotes Flavel, “‘the providence of God is like a Hebrew word – it can only be read backwards!’ It is much easier to see how God has used providence in the past than to figure out how he will use it to lead us in the future. And in any case, we can rightly interpret providence only through the spectacles of Scriptures.”[5]

Next he states, “Divine providence is irresistible.”[6] Here Watson is stressing that nothing can or will prevent what God has planned by means of Providence, it will happen no matter what.

His fifth proposition is that “God is to be trusted when his providences seem to run contrary to his promises.”[7] By making use of the episode in David’s life where he was promised the crown to be king, but in various circumstances in his life it looked like it wasn’t going to happen (when he was pursued by Saul). But, as Watson notes, God kept his promise.

Sixth, “The providences of God are chequer-work, they are intermingled.”[8] Watson wanted his listeners and readers know that when providence comes, sometimes it will be sweet, but other times it will be bitter on this side of glory. However, for the believer it is always mixed with God’s kind mercy.

The final proposition Thomas Watson presents is “The same action, as it comes from God’s providence, may be good, and as it comes from men may be evil.”[9] He goes on to give three biblical examples illustrating how this is so. First he speaks of the occasion when Joseph was sold into slavery by the evil actions of his brothers. Even though these were evil action by his brothers, God meant it for good, because that very act was the means in which God preserved Jacob and his family in Egypt. Next he speaks of Shemei’s cursing of David. Though the act of cursing David was evil, this was a means God used to humble and rebuke David for his wicked sin of adultery and murder. The final example is that of the crucifying of the Lord Jesus Christ. This was a wicked act, but it was the means of “God’s love in giving Christ to die for the world.”[10]

Our Response to Divine Providence
These profound propositions given by Watson are not mere academic principles to be noted and understood as fine points of theology, though they may legitimately be. The propositions are essential to a practical divinity. Watson goes on to give five exhortations that function as mandates for the believers. Here the reader sees Watson’s desire to connect deep theological truth with a practical divinity. Firstly, the believer ought to “admire God’s providence.”[11] Everything is working and held together because of God’s divine providence, such a truth is worthy of admiration. Secondly, “Learn quietly to submit to divine providence.”[12] He argues that God’s wisdom is greater than ours, so we ought to accept that God knows what he is doing and submit to that reality. Next he exhorts, “You that are Christians, believe that all God’s providence shall conspire for your good at last.” Though circumstances may look horrible, it will work out for good. Here he makes reference to . Fourthly, “Let it be an antidote against immoderate fear, that nothing comes to pass but what is ordained by God’s decree, and ordered by his providence.”[13] Though hardship may come, it will only go as far as the Lord’s providence will allow. The final exhortation is, “Let the merciful providence of God cause thankfulness.”[14] The Lord’s good providence brings many practical benefits to the life of God’s children; therefore the believer ought to be expressing their thankfulness to the Lord.

These propositions of providences and the practical exhortation given as a result of the truths contained in the propositions serve as an excellent framework of the Puritan’s theology of providence and the place it has in one’s practical divinity. Evidently, Thomas Watson’s view of divine providence is a significant aspect to one’s theology and is essential to having a right understand of God’s workings in the world and in one’s own life.

 


[1] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 120

[2] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 122

[3] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 123

[4] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 123

[5] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, (P&R Publishing, 2002), 286

[6] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 123

[7] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 123

[8] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 124

[9] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 124

[10] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 124

[11] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 124

[12] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 125

[13] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 125

[14] Watson, 1978, A Body of Divinity, 126

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

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Andrew Courtis

Andrew Courtis

ANDREW - Serves as Pastor of Hills Bible Church. I am married to Dianne and we have three children (Kate, Emma and Jack). I was born and raised in Melbourne, moved to Adelaide to undertake theological studies (BMin.), and have completed additional studies with the Australian College of Theology (MATh.). I have served in pastoral ministry in both Melbourne and Sydney and am a qualified school teacher. I am committed to expository preaching and making the word of God known and understood.