The Mystery of Providence – A Review by Brian Garrard
Divine Conduct, or The Mystery of Providence can be found in Volume 4 of Flavel’s Works, published by the Trust.1 It is also available separately in a Puritan Paperback edition, The Mystery of Providence.2 For this review, Volume 4 of the Works was used, and the page numbers cited correspond with that.
John Flavel (JF) was born in 1628 at Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England and eventually became a minister in Dartmouth, Devon. He was ejected for nonconformity in 1662 but continued preaching, although this was often in secret and in the face of continual harassment by the authorities. After some years he continued his ministry very much by writing, and published a number of books in his lifetime. With the accession of William of Orange to the throne, nonconformists enjoyed greater freedom of worship. JF was able to preach openly again and did so in a large building built by his congregation. He died in 1691 aged 63, worn out by hard work and many sufferings.
The Mystery of Providence is a treatise upon Psalm 57:2, ‘I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me’ Written in the late 1670s, it opens up the doctrine of divine providence in an excellent and helpful way. In his ‘Epistle to the Reader’ JF writes that God’s providential works are the ‘very fulfillings and real accomplishments of his written word.’ After some general exposition of the text, the major doctrine is stated: ‘That it is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of providence for them in all the states, and through all the stages of their lives’ (page 347). A little before, JF has observed that providence governs all the concerns and interests of God’s people and has a hand in everything that relates to them ‘throughout their lives, from first to last; not only great and more important, but the most minute and ordinary affairs of our lives are transacted and managed by it: it touches all things that touch us, whether more nearly or remotely’ (page 346).
Having established the doctrine, the author divides his work up into three main sections, the first being, ‘the special work of providence for the saints.’ Second is, ‘the remarkable performances of providence’ and finally, ‘the duty of meditating upon the performances of providence.’
Regarding the ‘special work of providence,’ JF observes that the ‘entire and full’ understanding of it must wait until the perfect state in heaven. What is comprehended now is but partial and imperfect (page 348). Believers have no reason to fear or be cast down, because their affairs in this world ‘are certainly conducted by the wisdom and care of special providence’ (page 350). Although a general providence governs all men and the earth itself (Eph. 1:22), ‘a special and peculiar’ providence exists towards Christians (John 17:2; 1 Tim. 4:10). The ‘church is his special care and charge; he rules the world for her good, as an head consulting the welfare of the body’ (page 350).
JF then describes the ‘most remarkable performances of providence’ for God’s people and provides ten headings in all (pages 362-413). They cover the formation and protection in the womb, the place and time of birth and the choice of family from which believers should come. Added to these are the means of conversion, employment, marriage, children, care of families and being kept from temptation and sin. He concludes here with a description of how providence operates in sanctification and uses such means as illness, trials and general disappointments. In all these, JF would have his readers worship and bless God for all his providences toward his people and see in them great and remarkable love.
The third and final major heading is ‘the duty of meditating upon the performances of providence.’ He is quick to affirm that this should be done at all times ‘but especially in times of straits and troubles’ (page 413). Why meditate upon providence? Firstly, because God expressly commands it. Secondly, to neglect this duty is everywhere condemned in his Word. Five other reasons are also given by JF and they conclude with these two. ‘It is a vile slighting of God, not to observe what of himself he manifests in his providences. For in all providences, especially in some, he comes nigh to us.’ Lastly here, in order that prayers are suitable to a believer’s condition, reference should always be made to providences whenever we address God (page 415).
Generally speaking, the Puritans were very practical and experimental in their preaching and writing, and no doctrine was ever expounded without a good measure of application. Accordingly, JF proceeds to give five directions on how to meditate upon divine providences. There must be no cold, theoretical and clinical reflecting but an ‘heavenly, spiritual exercise’ that will sweeten the Christian’s life and lighten his burden (page 416). ‘Ah sirs!’ he exclaims, ‘you live estranged from the pleasure of the Christian life, while you live in the ignorance or neglect of this duty.’
In this section, JF begins with, ‘labour to get as full and thorough recognition of the providences of God about you, from first to last, as you are able. O fill your hearts with thoughts of him and his ways.’ This kind of reflection was seen as ‘ravishing and transporting’ to him and he muses about the effect that many of these thoughts would provide. All such meditation must be drawn from Scripture, remembering that God is the author, giver and director of providence. In addition, maintain a heavenly and spiritual frame of heart and mind, ensuring that the affections are exercised toward God. The latter can also be encouraged by continual heavenly-mindedness, keeping in view eternal things and ensuring that a contented heart is maintained.
Ten motives to encourage consideration upon providence are then laid before the reader. They begin by pointing out that by this means, ‘a sweet and sensible communion with God’ is daily maintained. With this, much spiritual pleasure and delight is gained when the soul observes what God does in the life. Regrettably, space does not allow a fuller review, but these motives alone ought to be enough to stir the heart to constant meditation on providence. Of course, because this is the providence of God, problems may seem to arise in understanding his ways and JF seeks to deal with five of these (pages 467-485). Each one concerns the nature of providence and how it operates in the life of a Christian. As ever, the author is remarkably practical and helpful in his counsels, and these cover a number of pages. Last of all, JF provides a Postscript in which he commends the advantage of recording the experiences of providence (pages 495-497). Whether they are ones found in Scripture or in personal experience, let them be written down and thus aid the memory. In so doing, ‘have frequent recourse to them, as oft as new wants, fears, or difficulties arise and assault you.’
Of all books written upon providence, apart from the Bible of course, this must be regarded as the classic treatment of the subject. It is not hard to see why. Very warmly recommended.
The Works of John Flavel
6 Volume Set
Divine Conduct, or The Mystery of Providence can be found in Volume 4 of Flavel’s Works, published by the Trust.1 It is also available separately in a Puritan Paperback edition, The Mystery of Providence.2 For this review, Volume 4 of the Works was used, and the page numbers cited correspond with that. John Flavel (JF) […]
Reproduced with permission from the Bible League Quarterly No. 450, July-September 2012.
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