The Amazing Grace of God’s Providence

The Lord has promised good to me,
  His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
  As long as life endures.

When John Newton penned his classic hymn in 1772, first sung in January 1773, the autobiographical reflections of his life to that point were clearly at the forefront of his mind. He had experienced more misadventures in his first few decades than most men, and the grace of the Lord had marvelously saved him from spiritual death as well as severe earthly danger.

In his fourth stanza Newton shifts his focus to the future, and he declares that the goodness of God which had thus far followed him through 46 years was his certain expectation for the remainder of his days. Indeed, believers should commemorate God’s previous acts of kindness and deliverance, and Newton reminds us we should also entrust ourselves to the goodness of God for all our future days. Christians should expect God’s perpetual goodness towards us. We should hold a posture of what one might call “Christian optimism,” rooted in the character and the sure promise of God.

The Truth of God’s Promise

God has promised good to his children. The reality of this statement is enough to make one marvel forever. The supreme Lord over all, who created the heavens and earth and is Himself majestic beyond comprehension, has condescended not merely to notice man, but to care for man and to devote himself to the good of man (Psalm 8). In God’s act of creation, he makes for man a good world full of blessing and wonder. When he calls Abraham, he states that his purpose is for Abraham to be blessed and to be a blessing to humanity (Genesis 12:2). Indeed, throughout redemptive history we see God dealing with his people with the design of goodness and blessing in view (Exodus 19:6, 34:10; Deuteronomy 26:18-19; 2 Samuel 7; Jeremiah 29:10-14, 31:31-34). Paul declares to us who believe in Christ that God is actively at work in our lives to bring about our good and his glory (Romans 8:28-39). We shall say more about the substance of the good that God has promised, but may we first believe this promise, embrace it, and wonder at it.

There is a danger for us who want to resist popular and pervasive caricatures of God found in modern Christian teaching, music, and subculture, which emphasize the goodness of God and his “friendliness” to the neglect of presenting his holiness, sovereignty, and righteousness. That danger is that in our efforts to champion these latter traits we can become myopic and fail to cherish and celebrate the kindness and genuine goodness of God and his delight in his people, “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation,” (Psalm 149:9; cf. Zephaniah 3:17).

 Instead, we must not lose sight of the consistent theme of scripture that God intends to bless his people and do good to them. True, God is not a cosmic Santa Claus, but neither is he a cold and indifferent potentate; he loves his children. Calling upon God as our Father is an act of faith in his benevolent disposition toward us. Hence, Jesus compares our love for our children with that of the Father for us: “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him,” (Matthew 7:9-11). Christians ought to be the most hopeful, the most optimistic people because we know that the God who superintends the universe has a loving heart. Furthermore, the goodness of God is not a generalized intention but a personal promise; each believer can rightly say, “The Lord has promised good to me.” Believing that God is good and intends to do good to us is a matter of believing his Word.

The Surety of God’s Promise

As Newton asserts, our hope in God’s promise is a certainty because it is grounded in his Word and his character. The author of Hebrews makes this same connection in reference to Abraham’s hope and our own as heirs of the promise:

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus as gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. [1]

Our hope is for that which is certain and yet presently unseen, namely God’s future goodness towards us in this life and ultimately in the final resurrection (Romans 8:20-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19). The Word of God is the basis for our hope; we believe the promises God has communicated to us. God’s Word is also the means by which this hope is secured or brought to pass in our lives and in human history. When the Lord speaks, he is acting; unlike the mere words of a man, God’s Word accomplishes purposes and has tangible effects on his creation. God’s Word secures our hope because it is his Word that produces saving faith and repentance, and his Word is the very power of God to direct the course of human events (Romans 10:17; James 1:21; Isaiah 55:10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18).  Though Peter was an eyewitness of Christ’s glory, he asserts that the prophetic word of the Scriptures was more certain than his own firsthand experience (2 Peter 1:16-20). Hence, when we do not see firsthand that God is being good to us, we can nevertheless believe it.

The Substance of God’s Promise

God has promised good to us, but what is meant by “good?” Is it the “good” that is peddled by prosperity gospel hucksters, Word of Faith teachers, and even misguided evangelicals – namely physical health, material prosperity, and an abundance of self-esteem and self-affirmation? Does God’s word promise a life of comfort and ease to believers? Or is there a higher good which we should expect from God, one that transcends our own experience, emotions, and even existence? Newton answers this by directing our attention heavenward and insisting that essence of God’s promise for good is the promise that God would give himself to us – “He will my shield and portion be.”

Scripture declares that God himself is both the source and the substance of our good. As John Piper helpfully summarizes, “The best and final gift of the gospel is that we gain Christ… the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment.”[2] So, what is this good that God has promised to us? It is nothing less than God himself. God calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies us for our good because these are the means by which we will know him, the ultimate treasure.

The world and the enemies of the gospel define “good” based upon human sensory experience: an attractive spouse, an expensive car, an adventurous vacation, a clean bill of health, successful children, worry-free existence, political power, and the list goes on. The good which God will bring about in our lives certainly permeates our human experience and is delightful to us, but it is not centered on us; it is anchored in and defined by him. This is the sense in which God is our portion. The reward of believing the gospel is that we gain Christ, and there is no possible higher reward.

We ought not expect the world to understand that supreme gladness is found only in knowing the Lord, and yet do we believers not also sometimes seek to find our chief happiness in those things which cannot ultimately satisfy us? Even good and commendable things can usurp God’s rightful place on the thrones of our hearts, individually and corporately. In Jeremiah 2:13 the Lord upbraids his people for such an exchange:

For my people have committed two evils:

They have forsaken me,

The fountain of living waters,

And hewed out cisterns for themselves,

Broken cisterns that can hold no water.

The Lord declared himself to be the shield of Abraham (Gen 15:1), Israel (Deuteronomy 33:29), and David (Psalm 3:3; 5:12, 18:2), depicting himself as the one who protected them from trouble and calamity. Each of us could undoubtedly recount myriad ways in which the Lord had delivered us from hardships, and yet the Lord has most certainly protected us from unknown and unexperienced trials about which we know nothing simply because he spared us and shielded us from them. We can be sure that God will not permit anything to penetrate his shielding except that which he designs to afflict us for our good. This is why in the face of profound loss and unfathomable suffering, those who know God can say that such afflictions are themselves good (Job 1:20-22; Philippians 3:7-11).

The Duration of God’s Promise

If the Lord were to promise us good only in this lifetime, we should be thankful for his mercy even in that short span of time. Yet God’s promise extends through the end of our days on earth and beyond, “as long as life endures.” As Jesus declared to Martha, so he promises to us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). To believe this promise is to echo the praise of David, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” (Psalm 23:6).

The comfort that is ours in knowing the promise of God to do good to us, for us, and in us is a cause for great rejoicing when we see and experience this in our times of blessing. The birth of a child, a plentiful harvest, and seasons of spiritual growth and refreshment are tangible proofs of God’s promises and his faithfulness. But it is in the valley of the shadow of death, the periods of drought and famine, and the times of spiritual despondency when we most need to be reminded of God’s promises of goodness that will ultimately prevail over the trials we experience. When our temporal vista gives way to the perspective of eternity, we shall see that all along the Lord was doing everything for our good, just as he promised. As Newton’s friend William Cowper[3] penned,

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour:

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower. [4]

In his summary of Newton’s life and theology, biographer Josiah Bull places a special emphasis on Newton’s optimism towards God’s providence, “But here we would especially speak of Mr Newton’s faith in the overruling providence of God. In all circumstances his soul stayed itself upon the Lord. Thus in the perils of the deep he possessed his soul in peace.”[5]

Newton saw that even the sufferings of life are part of God’s plan to bring about good, both in his own life and in the lives of others. In his deepest sorrow following the death of his wife, he remarked in his journal, “I acknowledge that it was well worth standing awhile in the fire for such an opportunity of experiencing and exhibiting the power and faithfulness of His promises.”[6] Newton looked externally to God for his support, and he was sustained through his trial by considering that others who saw both his afflictions and his steadfast trust would have reason to look to God and be comforted when their own trials came. Newton preached the funeral service for his wife, and he remarked in his journal that he expected this to bear fruit, stating, “I have reason to hope that many of my hearers were comforted and animated under their afflictions by what they saw of the Lord’s goodness to me in my time of need.” Thus, our trust in God amidst the darkness may be used to be a blessing to others if we will but have eyes to see beyond ourselves in our travails. The good purposes God has for him who is suffering extend beyond the sufferer himself (Philippians 1:14, Colossians 1:24-25).

The Christian is not called to be a Pollyanna, willfully oblivious of the troubles that beset us and blindly optimistic about happiness lying just around the corner. Neither should Christians be like Eeyore, the old perpetually pessimistic donkey, incapable of finding contentment due to an expectation of inevitable hardship. Instead, we ought to trust the promise of God, that he intends good for us and that “He who calls you is faithful. He will surely do it,” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

[1]Hebrews 6:17-20

[2]John Piper, God is the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 13.

[3]For a concise account of their friendship, see George Ella, “John Newton’s Friendship with William Cowper, https://www.christianstudylibrary.org/article/john-newtons-friendship-william-cowper.

[4]William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

[5]Josiah Bull, The Life of John Newton (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007; reprinted 2020), 317.

[6]Bull, 262.

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