Understanding God’s Purposeful Sovereignty

Photo courtesy of Crossway

What is providence? We hear that term in church and among fellow Christians, but do we fully understand what it is and how it applies to our lives? Among many within the reformed tradition, much is made of the sovereignty of God. We understand that God is fully in charge of the universe and can do as he pleases. He alone has that right. Yet how does providence relate to God’s sovereignty? If you are like me, you may not have given it much thought. Seeing how the providence of God and the sovereignty of God interrelate is of utmost importance for the Christian life. For this reason, it is important for all believers to have a basic understanding of God’s providence, and how it relates to daily life. This is what John Piper discusses in his book Providence (Crossway, 2021).

It would not be an understatement to say that Providence is Piper’s magnum opus. He himself admits that the book is a culmination of his life’s work.* For much of his ministry Piper has been known for his teaching on the sovereignty of God. His own desire was to write a systematic theology on sovereignty, but in the end, the work became more about the providence of God rather than his sovereignty. ** Why the shift in focus? The answer is found in Piper’s definition of providence in reference to God as “the act of purposefully providing for, or sustaining and governing, the world” (pg. 30). In short, providence can be seen as God’s purposeful sovereignty. This definition is helpful, because many people mistakenly believe that God’s sovereignty indicates that he is an aloof distant being. Yet, his sovereignty understood rightly coupled with his providence indicates that God is not aloof but intimately involved in every aspect of the universe. This truth should bring much comfort to believers and non-believers alike.

Providence is then both a biblical and systematic theology of the providence of God. The book is broken into three parts: (1) A Definition and A Difficulty, (2) The Ultimate Goal of Providence, and (3) The Nature and Extent of Providence. A definition of providence has been discussed above, however Piper also addresses a difficulty that is raised in regards to God’s providence. This difficulty is the problem people have with God’s self-exaltation. Yet God is the only being in the universe with the right to self-exaltation as a result of his supreme sovereignty.

Piper then spends twelve chapters discussing the goal of providence. This section of the book takes a more biblical theological approach as Piper shows the goal of God’s providence throughout redemptive history as revealed in scripture. He walks through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation and shows how the providence of God is evident on every page. The majority of his time is spent in part three discussing the nature and extent of providence, almost 500 pages of the book’s 750 pages. In this section, Piper shows from scripture how the providence of God relates to seven key aspects of the world around us including: nature, Satan and the demons, sin, life and death, rulers and nations, conversion, and the Christian life. These are by no means exhaustive, but showcase the providence of God through these major aspects in the discussion. 

In the book, Piper makes a compelling and biblical case for the providence of God as understood in the reformed tradition. All Christians believe in God’s providence for the most part. The difference comes mostly with providence’s nature and extent. For this reason it is no surprise the Piper spends the vast majority of the book on this aspect of providence. Where most people get tripped up in regards to the providence of God is when considering the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Many people have difficulty reconciling the truth of God’s sovereignty and the reality of evil, pain, and suffering they see on a daily basis. In an effort to reconcile the two people either downplay the reality of evil in the world, or worse they downplay God’s ability to deal with it. Yet when seen through the lense of providence, evil and suffering have a purpose. We may not fully understand that purpose in this life, but we must trust that God has a purpose for it, or it would not be allowed. Piper sums up this point well in the book’s conclusion: 

For those who trust Christ, God’s sovereignty in suffering is not an unyielding problem but an unfailing hope. It means that, in the suf- fering of Christians, neither Satan nor man nor nature nor chance is wielding decisive control. God is sovereign over this suffering, which means it is not meaningless. It is not wrath. It is not ultimately destructive. It is not wanton or heedless. It is purposeful. It is measured, wise, and loving (pg. 704).

Who would we rather have in control of our suffering: ourselves, Satan, or the all-powerful creator God who works all things “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (i.e. providence)” (Romans 8:28, ESV). Piper’s answer to that question is the purpose for the book. 

Providence is truly a gift to the Church from a pastor and theologian who has spent his life devoted to making God known. At over 700 pages the book can present a challenge for many people. Yet this is not a book that has to be read from cover to cover. The scripture index alone makes this an excellent reference resource. It can be used in personal study, sermon or teaching preparation, and much more. A person does not have to be a pastor, teacher, or seminary student to enjoy this book. Piper has made the book accessible for people on various levels in their Christian life. The providence of God is part of our lives at each moment. His good and perfect purposes will be accomplished. For this reason it is important to study the scriptures and learn to trust and cherish God’s providential plan, even if we don’t fully understand it on this side of eternity.

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Notes:

* See “A Conversation on Providence with Mark Dever and John Piper” on the Together for the Gospel YouTube channel.

** Ibid. See also “John Piper’s Big Book on the Providence of God” an interview with Joe Rigney on the Desiring God YouTube channel.


Editor’s Note: This resource was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Zach Kendrick is the editor of Reading For The Glory.


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