The Free Willies Refuted: The God of Providence vs. the god of wishes*

"This Gives Me The Willies."


Having previously dealt with God’s predestinating omnipotence, and omniscience, John Owen, in the fourth chapter of A Display of Arminianism, deals with God’s works of loving providence for His people.  The emphasis here is not on God’s plan, nor his knowledge, which guides all, but rather the outworking of these doctrines in time and history.  These are God’s works of Providence.

Owen begins by asserting that God cares for and rules over every event in history, even over what seems to us the smallest and most insignificant things, “whereby he cherisheth, sustaineth, and governeth the world, or all things by him created, moving them, agreeably to those natures which he endowed them withal in the beginning, unto those ends which he hath proposed”.

According to Scriptures, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30), “He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by [their] names” (Psalm 147:4) and “Doth not He see my ways, and count all my steps?” (Job 31:4).  But God’s works in providence have a special meaning.  They are the means by which God take cares of his Church.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church for we are “the apple of his eye,” (Zechariah 2:8). Even the wicked were created for God’s use for, “The LORD hath made all [things] for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4).  God rules over rulers because, “The king’s heart [is] in the hand of the LORD, [as] the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.”  He made this promise: “And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty” (Exodus 3:21).  His care extends to even the animals and plants for “He feedeth the fowls, and clotheth the grass of the field” (Job 39:1,2).

The means by which God cares for his creation vary, but include the actions of men:  “As for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is at this day, to save much people alive,” Genesis 1:20.  God uses our natural actions to accomplish his will. He sustains all, in that he upholds all things by the word of His Power (Heb 1:3), but also in that “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17).

From man’s perspective there are many things contingent, yet God works all these things to accomplish His own infallible plans.  Owen observes:

Between the birth and death of a man, how many things merely contingent do occur! how many chances! how many diseases! in their own nature all evitable, and, in regard of the event, not one of them but to some proves mortal; yet, certain it is that a man’s “days are determined, the number of his months are with the Lord, he hath appointed his bounds that he cannot pass,” Job 14:5.


Not only during our lifetime, but throughout all of time, God ordered every minute detail in history in order to bring about His plans for His church and people.  For this, we should be thankful.  He determines who wins every lottery for Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.”

In this chapter’s conclusion, (the fourth in our series), Owen offers that the “free will” advocates have offered a false choice between God ordering all things and the free choice of men to act according to their pleasure.  The primary reason this false dilemma must be rejected is because the Bible teaches both the foreordination of God and the responsibility of man.  We do not have the right to cause a fissure where the Bible indicates there is none.

According to Owen, it is not the ordaining will of God alone that the free will advocates throw off.  This “free will” must be free from all undue influence of the coercive Providence of God itself.  God must be resigned to less power of influence than men.  In other words, there is a direct connection between a denial of God’s Sovereignty in salvation, and God’s Sovereignty in every other area of Creation.    Note these Arminian assertions,

“God by his influence bestoweth nothing on the creature whereby it may be incited or helped in its actions,” (Corvinus)

“Those things God would have us freely do ourselves; he can no more effectually work or will than by the way of wishing*” (Vorstius)

“The will of man ought to be free from all kind of internal and external necessity in its actions,” (According to Owen, the Remonstrants (early followers of Arminius) essentially say that “God cannot lay such necessity upon any thing as that it shall infallibly come to pass as he intendeth”).

One modern Arminian goes so far as to deny the relationship between the fall and death, by suggesting that nature itself brings about death without the plan of God: “Freedom, chaos, and even natural disasters are imbedded in the very fabric of life…. This all implies that chaos and danger necessarily accompany the order and beauty of the natural world as it unfolds through history.  The result of this dynamic, inter-dependent ongoing creation is an often unpredictable, messy world, vulnerable to the reality of suffering and death.” (Kyle Roberts, of Bethel Seminary).  Kyle’s work “Tsunamis: Or, Why I’m No Longer a Calvinist” is promoted by a website called “Evangelical Arminians”.

But God does rule and knows all, as Owen nicely sums up from the Scriptures:

…the prophet declareth that he knoweth that “the way of man is not in himself,” — that “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” (Jeremiah 10:23); and Solomon, that “a man’s heart, deviseth his way, but the LORD directeth his steps,” (Proverbs 16:9); David, also, having laid this ground, that “the Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to naught,” and “maketh the devices of the people of none effect,” but “his own counsel standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations,” (Psalm 33:10,11) proceedeth accordingly, in his own distress, to pray that the Lord would infatuate and make “foolish the counsel of Ahithophel,” (2 Samuel 15:31), — which also the Lord did, by working in the heart of Absalom to hearken to the cross counsel of Hushai; but also, secondly, that the working of His Providence is effectual even in the hearts and wills of men to turn them which way he will, and to determine them to this or that in particular, according as he pleaseth: “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD,” saith Solomon (Proverbs 16:1).

If God does not directly influence the will, how does God answer the prayer of David in Psalm 119:36, “Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness” or Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me?”  Indeed, why pray for God to save our children at all, if God plays no part in changing the hearts and wills of men?

While many refute that God ever does anything painful, The Psalmist says that even affliction is used by God to change our wills:

{66:10,11} For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins.

{119:67} Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.

{119:71} It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.




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