What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?
Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.
These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.
What if today you knew God would use you to change someone’s life? It could happen. God used the apostles of Jesus to change peoples’ lives. Remember the story of the lame beggar?
One day in Jerusalem Peter and John saw a lame man begging at the entrance to the temple. Reaching out his hand, this man asked the apostles for money. Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk. And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:1-8).
Imagine this man’s joy as he entered the temple, his body healed, his heart filling with new hope. Now imagine this man’s life if the apostles had not stopped: his body still twisted, his mind aching with hopelessness. Truly that day Peter and John were used as instruments of divine providence.
What Is Divine Providence?
One of the core doctrines of Christianity is that a personal God governs the universe. This governance is called “divine providence.”
Christians infer from the biblical record that God governs the universe in two ways: (1) God establishes natural laws which hold all things together, and (2) God performs miracles, which appear to go beyond nature’s laws to accomplish his purposes.
In the Old Testament we read in the first chapters of Genesis that God established the natural laws of day and night, seedtime and harvest, work and rest, and “God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). We also read, again in the Old Testament, about the miraculous ways God parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21), extended the hours of an ordinary day (Joshua 10:12-13), and protected Daniel from the ravenous beasts in the lions’ den (Daniel 6:16-23).
In the New Testament, we sometimes find Jesus subordinating his divine powers to the laws of nature he established, and at other times we discover him transcending nature’s boundaries to accomplish the will of his Father. Thus we see Jesus one day sleeping in a boat (Mark 4:38) and on another day walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33). We see Jesus dying on the cross as a real, wounded man (Matthew 27:32-54), and later we witness his miraculous appearance before the apostles as the only resurrected Christ (Mark 16:1-14).
And we see his apostles too, even after Pentecost, still subject to the restrictions of ordinary daily life, but also experiencing miraculous events, such as witnessing tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-31), escaping from jail (see, e.g., Acts 12), and healing the sick (see, e.g., Acts 14:8-10).
Through both natural law and miracles, we see God’s governance of this world, his divine providence.
Our Faith Is in God, Not Natural Law
The Old Testament psalmist sang of creation’s beauty when he wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Here the psalmist proclaims that instead of a universe arising from an impersonal force, the heavens give evidence of a Creator, and we may infer from changes in the sky—from gleaming, starry night to dark, stormy day; from glorious, brightening dawn to dusky sienna sunset—the existence of a God who is personal, intelligent, and artistic.
While God directs natural laws to accomplish his purposes in this world, in his hands these laws of nature remain malleable. In other words, natural “scientific” laws are not absolutes. For this reason our lives as Christians rely less on the laws of nature and more on the person of God.
So while it behooves us to observe natural laws, obey such laws, and pay close attention to nature’s patterns in hopes of discerning the ways of God, we also need to recognize that God sometimes alters those patterns through gradual transformation or instantaneous miracle.
God Among Us
While divine providence is expressed through natural laws and miracles, God’s presence is demonstrated through his Spirit. God’s Spirit works in this world, showing us that God loves us dearly. And this love gives us hope.
So where is God? The Bible teaches that God resides in heaven, from which we infer that our Creator is far away and transcendent, but Scripture also teaches that God is among us and immanent. Taken together, these truths form a paradox that has implications which require our attention.
One implication is that God is everywhere. From a biblical perspective, this statement is true: God is everywhere. But some people believe that if God is everywhere, then God is everything, an extrapolation that gives rise to religious myths, such as animism and pantheism.
Another implication is that God is the First Cause of everything, whether it arose from gradual transformation or from instantaneous miracle. Despite its mythic-like narrative, the Genesis record demonstrates the scientific principle of cause and effect. When the Bible declares, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . .” (Genesis 1:1), Scripture makes clear that God is the First Cause of all creation.
We human beings are created by God. And as effects of this First Cause, we contain the divine image. But according to the Bible, we are not divine sparks, potential gods ourselves who need only fan our humanness into a flame of full divinity through some esoteric knowledge, extraordinary insight, or spiritual discipline. Instead, we have been brought into existence outside of God’s person and now stand before God as individuals, capable of a relationship with our Creator.
The Bible further teaches that we are created good, but now, after the Fall of humanity’s first parents, we are sinful, carrying within ourselves a willful rebellion against our Creator and a propensity for evil. As such, we are in need of spiritual transformation, which we receive through God’s Spirit when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. Becoming more than creatures made in God’s image, we are transformed into children of God and heirs of eternal life.
Thereafter the Holy Spirit indwells our person and enables us to obey Jesus as the Lord of our lives, maturing us in Christlike character. And as maturing Christ-followers yielded to God’s will, we can be instruments of God’s Spirit, and like the apostles, we can help change someone’s life, thus changing the world.
A Reason for Hope
Divine providence is not only God’s caring for us through the laws of nature and miracles but is also his responding to our prayers. God listens to our intercessory prayers for others and our petitionary prayers for ourselves. And since Scripture reminds us “that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14), we may be assured that our prayers matter.
So when we are suffering, we have reason to lift our heads, for God is listening to our prayers and working out his good purposes in our lives. And when we observe the world in trauma, we can still walk forward, for we believe that God is with us, working in this world not only through the natural order of things but also through miracles.
Divine providence encourages our hope and enables us to reach out to hurting people, offering them hope through Jesus Christ.
Jonathan Rice is an editor and writer with InterVarsity.