What’s the Difference Between God’s Sovereignty and His Providence?

A reader recently asked a great question on my Facebook page: “Could you please define God’s sovereignty as compared to His providence?”

In my book hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice, I say this:

Arminian theologian Jack Cottrell says, “The sovereignty of God may be concisely summed up as absolute Lordship. It is the same as the concept of kingdom or kingship or dominion.”

Calvinist theologian A. A. Hodge defined God’s sovereignty as “His absolute right to govern and dispose of all his creatures simply according to his own good pleasure.”

I think nearly all Christians could agree with a definition of God’s sovereignty that affirms all things are under God’s rule and that nothing in the universe happens unless He either causes or permits it.

How about providence? Timothy George describes God’s providence as “God’s faithful and effective care and guidance of everything which He has made toward the end which He has chosen.”

John Piper has a helpful episode of Ask Pastor John answering the question of whether sovereignty and providence are the same. He says:

No, sovereignty and providence are not the same. God’s sovereignty is His right and power to do all that He decides to do. Job 42:2: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” But notice that nothing in that definition of sovereignty refers to God’s wisdom or God’s plans. It’s just right and power: you have the right and you have the power to do what you decide to do. When He decides to do a thing, He does it, and no one can stop Him. That’s sovereignty.

Providence, however, includes what sovereignty doesn’t. Providence, as I use the word and as most Christians have used it, is sovereignty in the service of wise purposes. Or you could say providence is wise and purposeful sovereignty.

The whole episode is worth listening to or reading.

In fact, Piper wrote an entire book on God’s providence. He writes, “The providence of God is his purposeful sovereignty by which he will be completely successful in the achievement of his ultimate goal for the universe. God’s providence carries his plans into action, guides all things toward his ultimate goal, and leads to the final consummation.”

Here are a few quotes from Piper’s book Providence:

  • “Many see God’s Providence as somehow impersonal. This is a wrong perception, because his heart is warm toward his creation in general, and to us in particular.”
  • “God does not intend for us to look at the world he has made and feel nothing…God does not intend for us to see ourselves, or any part of the world, as cogs in the wheels of an impersonal mechanism. The world is not a machine that God made to run on its own. It is a painting, or a sculpture, or a drama. The Son of God holds it in being by the word of his power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).”
  • “A nail sinks into a board because God planned for a hammer to hit it. A student makes an A on a test because God planned for the student to study. A jet flies from New York to Los Angeles because God planned for fuel to be available, wings to stay put, engines to thrust, and a pilot to know what he is doing. In none of these cases do we say that the cause was pointless—the hammer, the studying, the fuel, the wing, the engine, the pilot. Neither is prayer pointless. It is part of the plan.”
  • “Every day for all eternity—without pause or end—the riches of the glory of God’s grace in Christ will become increasingly great and beautiful in our perception of them. We are finite. They are ‘immeasurable’—infinite. Therefore, we cannot ever take them in fully. Let that sink in. There will always be more. Gloriously more. Forever.”

So how does this relate to people who have gone through and are going through suffering? That includes me, as I continue to grieve my beloved wife Nanci’s death just over eight months ago. Do words about God’s sovereignty and providence ring hollow? On the contrary—they resonate more with me than ever. While Nanci repeatedly affirmed God’s province and sovereignty throughout our married life, she spoke about them more and with greater delight in her final four years of life here than ever before.

Before Providence was published, we were sent a few of its early chapters, and Nanci dug into them. Along with God’s love and grace and happiness, His sovereignty and providence were two attributes she loved to contemplate. Her journal continually emphasizes that He has a perfect plan and that neither the devil nor demons nor human beings, even when we do evil, can ever derail God’s plan which is for our good.

I was just looking through Nanci’s journals today. Here are some things she wrote out:

“Everything is necessary that God sends our way; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.” —John Newton

“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” —Corrie ten Boom

“I choose to believe that there is a bigger picture and that my loss is part of some wonderful story authored by God himself.” —Jerry Sittser

“For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

In one portion Nanci quoted the following sentences from my books:

The way to contentment is to see the advantages of our present calling and to trust God’s purposes in our circumstances.

The Author of Life has placed us in a story far bigger than ourselves. We can trust God not only to bring the whole story together but also to do with our parts of it what He knows to be best.

God sovereignly uses difficulties in our lives as a fire to refine, purify, and strengthen our faith.

We can and should live now with the perspective that will be ours one minute after we die.

God promises that our future with Him will break forth in such glorious happiness that all present suffering will pale in comparison.

I’ll close with this wonderful advice from Puritan John Flavel about reflecting on God’s providence in your life:

O that we practiced the heavenly spiritual exercise of meditating on the providences of God! How sweet it would make our lives; how light it would make our burdens! You live estranged from the pleasure of the Christian life if you ignore or neglect this discipline.

Fill your heart with thoughts of Him and His ways! Let your meditation be as full and exhaustive as possible. Do not let your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the water, but sink like lead to the bottom. Although we cannot sound the depth of providence by our short line, it is our duty to live to dive as far as we can and to admire the depth even when we cannot touch the bottom.

Search backward into all the acts of providence throughout your life. That is what Asaph did: “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-12). He labored to recover and revive the ancient providences of God's mercies and so coax a fresh sweetness out of them.

There is no more pleasant a history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own life. Sit down and record from the beginning what God has been to you and done for you. What outstanding displays of His mercy, faithfulness, and love have taken place throughout your days? If a single act of providence is so ravishing and thrilling, what would many of them be if they were considered together? If one star is beautiful to behold, what is a constellation? If your heart does not melt before you have recited half that history, it is a hard heart indeed.

John Flavel, Adapted from The Works of John Flavel, Vol. 4 (London: W. Baynes and Son, 1820).

Photo by Jason Strull on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries