As we take up the Heidelberg Catechism again we bump into this delightful habit that the catechism has throughout of pausing to make sure that the catechumen understands the impact of the doctrine they are being taught. The catechizers want the catechumens to know the application of the doctrines that they are being taught in terms of the impact of the doctrine upon the lives of those being taught.
Too often, systematic theology can be taught as an abstraction. However, the HC desires that our systematic theology, which includes, of course, the truth that God as Creator, in His providence, is the sustainer (preserver/upholder) and governor of all things. This is also a truth that provides advantage/comfort to God’s people.
Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things?
Clearly, the implication here is that those who do not believe in God’s providence, do not have the advantage of all that is involved in the answer. People who do not embrace God’s providence are bereft of the comfort we find in the answer.
Answer: That we may be patient in adversity;8 thankful in prosperity;9 and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father,10 that nothing shall separate us from His love;11 since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.12
If we break this down in the form of an outline we get;
I.) The Advantages from affirming God’s Providence
A.) Patience in Adversity
B.) Thankfulness in prosperity
C.) Firm Trust in the character of God our Father that He loves us whatever befalls us
That adversity comes from God is a point that the HC labors to demonstrate again as it already has established from the previous question and answer of HC 27. The Psalmists ask,
Ps. 39:10, Remove Thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of Thine hand.
The HC teaches that because of the reality of God’s providence that when adversity (persecutions, hardship, trials, sorrows) does come upon us we can learn to be patient. Of course, patience is a virtue that characterizes Christians (Galatians 5:22) and as such we should rejoice when God’s providence works to the end of folding this attribute into the Christian’s life. As such, God’s providence is a means by which God works this particular fruit of the Spirit into our lives.
Secondly, on this score, we that adversity in our lives is an opportunity to thank God that He continues to sanctify us as His children. The deepest desire of every Christian is to be conformed to Christ and adversity is one means by which God conforms us to His Son. The joy in being conformed to Christ in adversity is one reason we can be “thankful in adversity.”
Samuel Rutherford understood somewhat of this point. A point that is made in Roman 5:3
Rom. 5:3, And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.
“O what I owe to the file, hammer, and furnace! Why should I be surprised at the plow that makes such deep furrows in my soul? Whatever direction the wind blows, it will blow us to the Lord….Whether God comes with a rod or a crown, He comes with Himself. “Have courage, I am your salvation!” Welcome, welcome Jesus!”
Oh, what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who has now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through His mill, and His oven, to be made bread for His own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy.
Maybe someday yet, I will have Father Rutherford’s maturity on this score.The second advantage in believing God’s Providence is that we can be thankful in prosperity. Oddly enough, it can be as difficult at times to be thankful in prosperity as it is to be patient in adversity. When things are good there is the temptation to forget that it is God’s providence that is the reason for whatever prosperity we are knowing and experiencing. Instead the HC teaches us that we are to be thankful to God who is the ground of our prosperity,
9Deut. 8:10, When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee.
1 Thes. 5:18, In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
There is nothing as unbecoming and inconsistent as a non-thankful Christian. Indeed, any Christian who is characterized by a niggardly, unthankful spirit is in danger of coming under God’s fatherly discipline.
God grant us grace to be genuinely thankful.
By learning God’s providence God’s people also have the decided advantage of knowing that the sovereign God of the universe loves them for the sake of Jesus Christ and that no matter what befalls us (comes into our lives).
Rom. 5:3–6, And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
The intent of this teaching of the HC I think is to anchor us in the reality that God is never absent from His people come what may and that because God is never absent from them, and because God loves them for the sake of Christ, they can be confident that even in the hottest fire God’s love remains steady and fixed upon them.
11Rom. 8:38–39, For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is more easy to affirm these truths when not in the cannibals pot of persecution but will we be able to be steadfast in affirming God’s love for us even when circumstances, read apart from God’s revelation, scream to the contrary? Are we ready to affirm God’s love when cancer strikes? When loved ones die? When civilization begins to dissipate while we are watching? When the New World Order looks like it is going to run the table? In times of adversity will we be able to continue to affirm both God’s providence and God’s deep and abiding love for us because of the finished work of Jesus Christ for God’s elect. Let us pray even now for the grace to stand if and when those days of travail visit us. Let us pray that we might remember our catechism as it faithfully exegetes Scripture if and when Job like days of trouble arrive.
12Job 1:12, And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.
Job 2:6, And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.
(Note in the two Job passage’s above that Satan is merely God’s attack dog on a long chain.)
Matt. 8:31, So the devils besought Him, saying, If Thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine.
Isa. 10:15, Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood.
In the end, this affirmation of God’s providence is naught but the old stout Reformed doctrine of God’s exhaustive and totalistic sovereignty. This sovereignty taught in the Bible is not embraced by Rome, it is not embraced by the Arminians, it is not embraced by the Lutherans and alas, it is not embraced by many Reformed people today who, when this doctrine is taught, start screaming things like “hyper-Calvinism.”
However, this Heidelberg Calvinism, which exalted God’s sovereignty at every turn is what is taught everywhere in the pages of Holy Writ and people eschew God’s Providence at their soul’s own peril.