Church History, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology

Interpreting Providence

Whenever there is a dreadful, large-scale event (e.g., a terrorist attack or the outbreak of disease), someone is sure to announce that this is God’s judgment on the world for our sins. Without a doubt, by nature, after the fall, we all deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation for our sins both original and actual.


According to God’s Word, all human beings were represented by the first man, Adam. We were in him both genetically and legally. He stood in our place. We were there. We were created in righteousness and true holiness (Heidelberg Catechism 6). Scripture says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:31). Adam was created with the ability to obey. He was not created fallen. He was not created with concupiscence (i.e., a corrupt desire).

It is implicit in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 that Adam represented all of humanity since the judgment pronounced in 3:14–15 is corporate:

Yahweh Elohim said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.”

It was not only Eve and the serpent who were cursed: “between your offspring and her offspring” makes Adam a public, that is, a representative person. We are as related to Adam as we are to our great grandparents. What Adam did affects us all. The judgment that he incurred, we incurred.

Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God covenanted with Adam to reward his obedience with eternal life and to curse his disobedience with death: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” That is why there were two trees in the garden, a tree of life and the tree of death. Mysteriously and tragically, Adam chose death. As a result, we see and feel the consequences everywhere.

In Deuteronomy 27:26, God repeated the demand for perfect obedience after the fall and he repeated the curse, too: “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” In Galatians 3:10 the Apostle Paul quoted this very verse in explaining the consequences of sin and the continuing demands of the law even after the fall. The law is holy, just, and good. It demands what it demands because God is what he is.

Scripture is equally clear, however, that the “gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The good news is that the gospel was also promised to more than Adam and Eve individually: “he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.” The covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, Yahweh Elohim, made a promise to the Evil One. He would be finally judged, and, in that judgment, he would be allowed to strike the heel of his conqueror—but the conqueror would strike or crush his head. Again, this work was not for one but for all those for whom the conqueror would come, whom the Father gave him, for whom he died. He would save them all in that one act of obedience (Romans 5:19). He acted on behalf of all his people. In Heidelberg Catechism 60, the Reformed Churches confess that for those who believe in Christ, it is “as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.”

For those who are in Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Jesus himself said that, in his cross, the judgment against the Evil One was executed: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). Believers are not under judgment. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

There remains yet a final judgment, a condemnation for those who are outside of Christ. Our Lord said: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Those who are in Christ have “done good.” He is our good. Those who are outside of Christ face eternal condemnation. If you are reading this and you have not acknowledged your sin and misery under the law of God and turned to Christ, do it now!


So, there is no question of our sinfulness. There is no question of the way of salvation. Further, there is no question that the effects and affects of sin still plague the world. As I write, cities in the USA are being shut down, businesses closed, and worship services postponed because of the virus that spread, apparently, from a “wet market” in Wuhan, China to the rest of the world. This virus is particularly deadly for those who have an underlying illness (e.g., a respiratory ailment) and seniors.

In response, some have predictably announced that this is a divine judgment. To be sure, there have been divine judgments in the world. The Lord flooded the earth (Genesis chapters 6–9) and he plagued Egypt until Pharaoh released the (temporarily) national people of God (Exodus chapters 6–14). There were episodes when the Lord afflicted the Canaanites who surrounded the Old Testament national people of God. There are a couple of episodes where the Lord struck down individuals, e.g., Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and Herod (Acts 12:23).

Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus himself cautioned us about inferring from calamities a direct causal link or even a correlation between a calamity and the sins of a group:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:1-3).

This is a fallen world. Thorns, thistle, pollen, and viruses are all around us. Just as there is common grace, whereby God restrains the evil consequences of the fall, so too there is common suffering. Faithful, godly believers get cancer. There are thoroughly rotten people who seem to get through this life without a scratch (Jeremiah 12:1). Their day of accounting is postponed.

Our Lord Jesus warns us against drawing a correlation or a causal link between the sins of a people and their afflictions. The Galileans were not worse sinners than anyone else. So it was with the man born blind in John 9:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3).

The disciples made the same error. They thought they too could interpret providence, that they could draw a correlation and a causal link between particular sins and particular judgments.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Qoheleth, the convener of the covenant assembly, explained:

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14).

The Lord himself had warned us against the folly of trying to outguess him: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The Lord knows the end from the beginning. We do not.


Interpreting providence is a great but hazardous temptation. When an earthquake disrupted the trial of John Wycliffe in London, his enemies interpreted it as a judgment against him and he interpreted it as a judgment against his accusers. So it is when we try to draw specific messages from general revelation.

Jesus did teach us how to interpret providence. The key term here is general. In both cases, our Lord Jesus did tell us what sorts of inferences we should draw when we see affliction. In the case of the man born blind, the Lord said that he was blind so that he, Jesus, could heal him and demonstrate God’s power. This interpretation is special, not general since our Lord Jesus is not with us bodily healing and raising (and we may fairly doubt those who claim the power to do the same). In Luke 13, however, he did give a general application of the specific episode: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This is a general application that applies to all of us everywhere.

What does Covid-19 tell us? It tells us that as often as we think that we have everything under control, we do not. It tells us that God is not absent from us. It reminds us of his power to disrupt the ordinary course of things with, as it were, the flick of a finger. It is not that God was absent and then intervened (occasionalism), but that God is always working in and through all things that occur (concursus).

This episode, like many others we can all recite, remind us that this is a fallen world. That we are frail. Look at the hordes emptying the shelves in panic. Look how quickly late modern life can be reduced to basics, food, shelter, and washing one’s hands. We delude ourselves with the dream that we are mighty and powerful when in fact we may be felled by a tiny little virus. You might be a vector (a carrier) right now and not even know it. Thousands have already died across the globe despite national health care (or because of it) and high-tech late, modern medicine. We mock the medieval world for being backward and plague-ridden until we discover that every touch screen in McDonald’s is covered in filth. This is the illusion of Enlightenment. We mock the medievals for witch trials but just let someone raise a question about the causal link between human activity and “Climate Change” and witch trials look positively rational by comparison.

There is a judgment coming but this is not it. This is only a mild warning of what is to come. God the Son became incarnate to save sinners. Remarkably, we crucified him for telling the truth, but he did not remain in the grave. He was raised. He still speaks to us in his Word. He is still warning us to repent and inviting all to come. As he said through his prophet Ezekiel:

And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:10-11)

The Lord spoke those words to his Old Testament national people, but they apply today. The Apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

These words were written in regard to all. We are in the same condition as Noah and “the world that then was.” The coming judgment is being announced and some are listening, and some are not. Those who listen will climb aboard the ark of Christ, the ark of salvation. Come to him now before it is too late.

Filed under: Church History, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.