This is a great question submitted Sunday after our talk on the church at Philadelphia. Let’s start by defining fatalism then we will go on to providence and how the sovereignty of God does not deny human volition.
It needs to said and understood that Scripture never denies that man has a volitional capacity. The Scriptures do condemn man’s volitional capacity as being totally influenced by sin so that man’s volition has done nothing but choose hell and rebellion.
Man chooses all the time; the problem is that man’s choosing is dominated by evil not righteousness and can’t affect eternal outcomes. Frankly, I can’t find one instance in Scripture where the ends are left to the determination of men. Can you? Why, man’s volition is sinful from conception (Ps. 51).
Don’t believe me? Then stop sinning in thought, word and deed right now forever.
See what I mean?
Even as redeemed followers of Jesus Christ we have a hard time not sinning. That is why we constantly need the everlasting work of the Gospel.
God is sovereign and man has a volition. The question is can God overcome my volitional suicide and work with / direct my volitional folly to accomplish his glory and my good?
Ok, here we go…
First, fatalism. Fatalism is a system in which human choices and human decisions really do not make any difference (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 674). In fatalism, no matter what we do, things are going to turn out as they have been previously ordained with zero human work. Fatalism is NOT providence.
Next, providence. The doctrine of God’s providence affirms the actions of man and a means of the Lord accomplishing his good ends and that sometimes man drops the ball and has to be disciplined, trained or corrected and encouraged to move on toward the goal.
So, how does Jesus open doors, shut them and require that I / we do something that matters?
That is answered in the wonderful Christian doctrine of God’s providence. Here is a great working definition:
“God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 315).
The three parts of this definition are preservation, concurrence and government.
The providence of God affirms that the Lord has a mission and he works through the acts of men to accomplish his mission.
This definition, obviously, does not come from a chapter and verse in the bible, but it does come from the collection of accounts in Scripture of God’s dealings with man recorded in Scripture.
Here are a few bible examples for you to consider:
1. Abraham and Isaac. For real. The LORD tells old Abe to go and sacrifice his son. They go up and it just so happens that the LORD had a ram caught in a brush just as Abe is about to go hard to the finish. Coincidence? No. Providence. So much so Abraham called that place “the LORD will provide”. There is no Hebrew word for “provide”. The Hebrew word is “see”. Since that does not make sense in English we translate that “provide”, you know pro – before, vide – see, to see before. Provide. The word provide has the connotation of seeing the need and supplying the need. What the LORD saw was needed at the right time, in the actions of men, he met and had them in the right place at the right time.
2. Joseph. Who caused the Ishmaelite traders to happen by just as the brothers were deciding to kill Joseph or let him out? It just so happened that they were coming by and going where? Egypt! Coincidence? No. Providence. Father working in the volition of Ishmaelite traders, murderous brothers, one “merciful” brother and one mildly foolish little brother who could not keep his mouth shut to save thousands when the famine would come. See Psalm 105. The Psalmist affirms that it was the LORD who send Joseph to Egypt. Was he just mistaken? No. He is affirming that Jesus works through the volition of men to accomplish his (Jesus’) ends.
3. Moses. Moses was put into the river, and it just so happened that the Pharaoh’s daughter was there bathing and she took him to be her son and sends for her servant to find a nurse for the baby boy. That alone is providential, but then the nurse is, guess who? Moses’ mother!!! She gets to take care of her son on the dime of the Egyptian empire. Father using the volitional actions of men to preserve and govern well.
4. Ruth. Seriously? It’s like the LORD is just showing off. Well he should. He’s worthy of our standing / bowing / trembling awe of him. Ruth’s husband dies, her father-in-law dies and her brother-in-law dies. She stays with Naomi. They get back to the homeland of Naomi (Israel), and it just happens to be at barley harvest (when she and Naomi would need food) and she just so happens to go to work at Boaz’ field who would marry her and they would have Obed, who would have Jesse would have David, who would, later on, Father Jesus. Coincidence? No. Providence. Jesus opens and shuts doors.
By the way, there was a closer relative than Boaz in this story who could have redeemed Ruth, but he could not afford the redemption price, so he passes Ruth along to Boaz. Shut door to an open door. Jesus so rules well, doesn’t he?
5. Esther. Show off! The only book of the bible that God’s name is not mentioned. Why? Because his name does not have to be called in this book to see his hand. Every twist and turn in the story is understood to be the LORD. Rabbi’s tell the story with a wink in their eye to indicate to the children the activity of the LORD. The story sets up the creation of the festival of Purim in which the LORD rescued his people. His hand is so visible in the story.
Example, and just one because we would not want the Lord to get a big head, right? Wrong. Lets lift him up. Ok, Ahasuerus could not sleep (why do you think he could not sleep?), and so he had a servant read him the chronicles of the kingdom’s activity to hopefully hasten some sleep, and the servant just happens to grab the scroll (how did he just happen to grab that scroll?) recording the story of Mordecai’s foiling a plot by some to kill the king and he realizes Mordecai has never been thanked, so the king asks Mordecai’s enemy what should be done for Mordecai, but Haman thinks the king is referring to him, so he comes up with this elaborate celebration (in total selfishness) and then the king has Haman do that for Mordecai and Haman, who was plotting the Jew’s demise, is hung on the gallows he built for Mordecai. That is just too good! Too many twists for that to be coincidence. Is it coincidence? No. Providence.
In this whole story men and women are making real decisions that have real consequences all while the ends are being directed by Jesus who opens and shuts doors.
Here is the deal, this is not a “both” thing. Scripture never affirms that man is “free” from constraint. Man is either constrained by sin or by Christ. Anarchy is not an option.
God is presented as the one who rules all things in his creation for his appointed ends and man is presented as a rebel in need of salvation after his rebellious coup in the garden. Man is not free from sin until he is in Christ and then he is constrained by the mission of Christ.
This is totally different for the Christian than for the non-Christians. The non-Christian is in need of regeneration so that he can see and savor Jesus, and until then he is on his self-chosen path to hell. His decisions will only work to condemn him.
For the Christian, his decisions are influenced by the Holy Spirit in such a way that Father is working for his glory and man’s good at the same time while his loved child’s decisions have real results that need to be either affirmed or corrected.
So, Jesus opens and shuts doors and he does so while cooperating with man in his volitional activity either in condemnation or salvation to govern all life and it’s ends.
If you are a follower of Jesus, this is extremely comforting. You have to make decisions, so you make them based on faithfulness right now. Be faithful and obedient right now and you will find yourself on the Lord’s course, guided by his steady and good hand and moving toward his good ends.
If you are not a follower of Jesus, then you need to understand you are dead. You can’t see, you can’t pick heaven because your original parents chose rebellion and hell for you. But the good news is that Jesus has come to offer you justification if you repent and believe the Gospel.