Partial Providence and the West Virginia Mining Tragedy

My friend, Paul Stith, who pastors Grace Heritage Church in Auburn, Alabama, asked me to consider writing about the tragic mining accident that left 12 miners dead and another in critical condition in West Virginia earlier this week. Paul was watching a televised news report when friends and family were mistakenly told that the miners had been found alive, only to learn a few hours later that such was not the case. He writes, “In the wee morning hours I watched a young woman shout ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ at the news that the 12 miners had been found alive. The cameras found the same woman and witnessed her understandable grief when the truth was found out. Then grief turned to anger in the many who had been, only hours before, thanking God.”

Being the wise pastor that he is, Paul turned this into a teaching opportunity with his family. Exactly what is God’s providence? Do we believe it only when obviously good things happen to us? Is His providence just as real when tragedies strike?

My heart goes out to those who are mourning the loss of their loved ones in this horrible accident. To be given hope that all is well only to discover hours later that this was false hope rooted in an erroneous report must have felt like emotional abuse to the families and friends. My comments are in no way intended to stand in judgment on their expressions of suffering. But this emotionally charged tragedy that has played out, in part, on the national stage does raise a vitally important question for believers.

Do we believe in complete providence or partial providence? In other words, is God just as sovereign, good and wise–and therefore praiseworthy–in tragedies and losses as He is in blessings and victories?

In 7 content-rich paragraphs chapter 5 of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 sets out very precise teaching on the biblical revelation of God’s providence. The universality of God’s providence is asserted in the very first sentence, which says,

God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.

This perspective is both taught and assumed throughout all the Scriptures. Isaiah 46:9-10 says,

Remember the former things of old,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things that are not yet done,
Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
And I will do all My pleasure,’ ….

Jesus teaches the same truth when He sent His disciples out to preach, teach and heal. They were going to meet opposition–even hatred and persecution. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). What do you say to a sheep that you are about to send into a pack of wolves? You don’t have to watch Animal Planet to get the proper visual image that Jesus was intending to communicate to His disciples by using this language. Our Lord encouraged them not by promising to protect them from pain and sorrow. Nor did He offer them any formulas or incantations to which they could resort that would make the wolves bite more gently or anesthetize their pain. Rather, Jesus encouraged His sheep who were about to face wolves by emphasizing the absolute, unrestricted sovereignty of God over all things. He said,

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:28-31).

God is sovereign over wolves–every growl and every bite. Jesus uses an argument from the lesser to the greater to make His point. Things as insignificant as sparrows are under God’s sovereign providence. Not even one of them falls to the ground apart from His will. If God so carefully watches over and rules over their lives, how much more will He carefully watch over and rule over the lives of Christ’s disciples? Even the hairs on our heads are numbered by God, the implication being that not even one of them can fall to the ground apart from our Father’s sovereign will.

This view of God is understandably obnoxious to unbelievers because they do not know God. They do not know His love, mercy, grace, goodness and wisdom that believers have experienced in Jesus Christ. But we know and can say with the hymn writer that God is

Too wise to be mistaken, …
Too good to be unkind.

As the last paragraph of chapter 5 in the 1689 Confession says, “As the providence of God doth in general reach to all creatures, so after a more special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof.” This is exactly what Romans 8:28 teaches, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This does not mean that everything that happens to us can be judged good on its own merits. But everything–even being eaten by wolves–will work together for our good because that is what God promises to do in His providential ordering of our lives. This promise does not extend to unbelievers. It is restricted only to those who “love God and are the called according to His purpose.”

This does not exempt believers from tragedies. Nor does it guarantee us painlessness. Christians get cancer, are betrayed, raped, cheated, robbed and even die in mining accidents. Such is life in a fallen world. But in and through all of these kinds of things we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” because nothing “can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

What proof do we have of this? What is the basis of this guarantee? The death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul uses the logic of the cross to make an iron-clad case for God’s faithfulness in providing everything that believers need in this life and the life to come. And He does it by asking the most profound rhetorical question in all the Bible. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). This is the greatest promise in all of Scripture. Every other promise is packed into it. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.” If God did not spare us His own Son and did not spare His own Son’s horrible death for us, how in the world can we doubt that He will in Christ give us everything that we need!

So the cross becomes the prism through which believers are able to look at the trials and tragedies of life and be assured that “behind a frowning providence God hides a smiling face.” The cross is the greatest tragedy in all of human history. It is the greatest miscarriage of justice–the only righteous man who ever lived was executed as a vile criminal. Yet, in and through that greatest of all horrors, God was doing His deepest work of redemption. He was not absent, nor only partially involved. He was sovereignly orchestrating every last detail of the events. And He was doing it for the good of His people and the glory of His Name.

Seeing this and believing it provides real comfort and hope in our real pain and sorrows under the providence of God. Nowhere is the perspective summarized more clearly than i
n the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

What a great comfort to know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely sovereign over sickness, loss, tragedies and disasters! This sure knowledge is what enables a believer to say, even if through tears, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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