Special Providence and the Problem of Answered Prayer

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links


One of the problems associated with being a cessationist is that people think that you must hold the idea, as the firmest of doctrines, that the Holy Spirit no longer does anything in this world. Another problem is that some of your fellow cessationists agree with this somehow, not recognizing it as a grotesque caricature of the cessationist position. Cessationism holds that certain particular sign gifts (e.g. prophecy, healing) are no longer operative today, but which is not the same thing as believing that God is no longer operative today.

To say that the sign gifts were of limited duration is not to say that God is dead.

In a Nutshell

The cessationist position (in a nutshell) holds that in former days God spoke to us through the prophets (Heb. 1:1), but in these latter days, He has spoken to us definitively through His Son (Heb. 1:2). This foundational work was attended with miraculous power, so that the people could know that the people speaking the Word of God to them had the authority to do so. God set the foundations right where He wanted them, and no builder coming afterwards would have the authority to move anything. Subsequent builders could build up, but not out.

We could identify who these foundation workers were because they brought their authentication with them.

“Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.”

2 Corinthians 12:12 (KJV)

So spiritual gifts are operative throughout all church history, but the miraculous sign gifts were the authentication that the one doing those miracles had the authority to speak for God verbatim, which is to say, had the authority to write Scripture. Since no one today has the authority to write new Scripture, this means that no one today is capable of producing any such authentication. The apostles and prophets were the foundation, and Christ was the cornerstone.

“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.”

Ephesians 2:20 (KJV)

Think of it this way. Christ and His direct stand-ins were the concrete workers. They poured the foundation. The evangelists are the lumberjacks and mill operators, bringing in new material to the build site. And pastor/teachers are the contractors, building the structure itself (Eph. 4:11). The structure is still in process, and we have not yet put the roof on. But one thing is for certain—when we put the roof on, we won’t be pouring concrete. That part is already completed. God completed the footprint of the apostolic structure, and the concrete is down below. Attempts to perpetuate the sign gifts today is like trying to build the attic by pouring concrete. Or like pouring a concrete slab across the garden in order to add an unauthorized wing, one not found in the blueprints at all.

Now there are objections to all this, and there are answers to those objections, but one of my purposes here today is to stay out of that rabbit hole. I am just outlining the position I hold so that you, gentle reader, might understand the particular problem I am trying to solve.

Providence, General and Special

Christians who have a strong view of God’s sovereignty know that He directs and controls all things. Like all Calvinists, I believe that God is at work in His providential care over every last thing that happens, down the least squirming of the smallest quark.

Because we believe in God’s general providence, we can say, if it happened, then God did it. Good weather and bad, peace and war, prosperity or tumult, God is above all, and in all, and beneath it all. Nothing is excluded from His general providence.

“If there is calamity in a city, will not the LORD have done it?”

Amos 3:6 (NKJV)

Problems come in when we move from the indisputable fact that God has done something to our own explanations as to why He did it. He told us in the Scriptures that He did it. He does everything. But He did not tell us why.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Deuteronomy 29:29 (NKJV)

We can illustrate with a ludicrous example. Suppose an earnest young man wants God to pick His wife for him, and he has helpfully narrowed the options down to Suzy or Sally. To cinch the matter in his pious mind, he decides to propose to one of these women on the basis of a coin flip. Heads it is Suzy, and tails Sally. If challenged, he can say that Scripture teaches us that the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov. 16:33). Yes, quite. We know that Jehovah determined before all worlds that the coin he just flipped would come up heads. What we don’t know is that this means Suzy. That has not been disclosed.

The Problem of Answered Prayer

Now I trust that you can see how the dilemma of answered prayer might prove troublesome to a cessationist. If we always pray in terms of general providence, our prayers will no doubt be answered, and it is sign of God’s kindness, but there is nothing about it that stands out. By this I mean that if we pray something like, “Dear Lord, if it be thy will, please let the average rainfall this season at least register somewhere between 2 and 4 inches,” and this is prayed in a region that usually averages 6 inches, then the one offering the prayer is certainly playing it safe. Now we do know that God gives the rain, but He gives the rain to the just and to the unjust both (Matt. 5:45). The ungodly farmer was likely to get his 6 inches anyhow, praying or no praying.

But if a specific prayer is offered up, as we are instructed to offer them, and it is specifically answered, then it would appear that God is very much active and identifiable in the situation. His fingerprints are frequently all over answered prayer. And the question arises, “should this trouble a cessationist?” Well, it should not trouble a cessationist as a cessationist. There is no need. And if it never happens, it should trouble the cessationist as a Christian.

“And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

Matthew 21:22 (KJV)

Whatever that verse means, let us agree, for the sake of discussion, that it means something. And if it means anything significant at all, then the problem I am trying to address remains.

A Made Up Example

Now I am going to make up an example of answered prayer, but I want to assure everybody that I have experienced answers to prayer that are every bit as uncanny as this one, right down to the spooky music in the background. This kind of thing happens, and it happens to cessationists.

Suppose a young couple is just starting out in life together, and one month, as periodically happens, they found themselves with too much month at the end of their money. They have one outstanding bill left to pay, and it is a bill for $67.15. It is due the following day.

They lay this need before the Lord in their devotions that morning, and they specifically ask for an extra $67.15, so that they might meet all their obligations without dishonoring their testimony. Later that morning, the husband picks up the mail, and finds a letter from a distant aunt, one he has not communicated with in years, and letter contains a check for $67.15. “I just felt pressed in my spirit to send you this,” she explains in the letter. The letter is postmarked three days before, which was one day before the couple knew they were going to have the bill due, and a day before they started praying about it.

Suppose further that when the husband brings the letter home, the wife exclaims, “It’s a miracle!” But then she catches herself. They were good Presbyterians. “No, no,” she says. “Not a miracle. No natural laws were suspended or otherwise tinkered with in the answering of this prayer. This was not Peter walking on water. But it was a specific answer to a very specific prayer. I know that God heard us.”

Which He did. It was a special providence, by which we mean nothing more than that we can see God working all things to His glory, which He does all the time. In His general providence, He is working all the time also, so what is so special about special providence?

A special providence is not a time when God begins to work. God is always working all the time. He feeds the birds (Matt. 6:26), and He clothes the lilies (Luke 12:27). A doctrine of strong general providence means that we know that in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). There is not one thing that we have that does not come from His hand.

But a special providence occurs when God, wanting to teach us something about what is going on all the time, walks us around to the front of the car and pops the hood. From time to time, He lets us see the engine running. He lets us see, for a moment, what He is actually doing all the time.

Cessationism requires that the aunt not say anything in her letter like, “God told me to send you this.” But it does not require that the couple pretend that God had nothing to do with it. Of course He did.

Proof as Moral Obligation

In the example of the check for $67.15, the couple can see (and say) that this was a specific answer to a specific request. God heard their request, and He answered their plea.

“But verily God hath heard me; He hath attended to the voice of my prayer.”

Psalm 66:19 (KJV)

This is not a claim to have miraculous powers. It is a simply claim that you have eyes in your head. You can say that God specifically answered your prayer for that money for the same reason that you can say that a falcon’s eyesight is not the end product of millions of years of mindless evolution. The falcon’s eyesight exhibits design, which can be ascertained by looking at it for more than thirty seconds. Evolutionary explanations do not strain credulity; they smash it, soak it with lighter fluid, and set it on fire. This is why, when an atheistic scientist examines the falcon’s eye, and comes up with some sort of just so story, about random something something, he is sinning. He is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

This answered prayer is clearly on behalf of those who offered up the prayer, and they have a moral obligation to recognize God’s handiwork in the answer, and to praise Him for it. To refuse to see that as an answer to prayer is to exhibit hardness of heart. We can say that something is proven when it results in a moral obligation in the person that is examining the offered proof. If an atheistic brother-in-law was living with this couple, and saw them open the bill, and heard them praying, and then saw the check that the husband brought home, he would be under a moral obligation to believe that they had a relationship to God that he did not have. The thing would have been proven to him. It is not just allowable that he believe. It is required, and it is obstinacy to refuse.

Now, as said above, God provides for us all the time through His general providence, but He does not always pop the hood. So change the illustration. Suppose that a few nights before the couple prayed, the wife had shared with her mom on the phone that they were going to be in need of $67.15, and that her mom then mentioned something about it in passing to the distant aunt, who was a kind-hearted woman, and so she dispatched the check, which arrived the same morning the couple prayed.

This is every bit God’s provision, and the couple should thank Him for it, but it does not exhibit the signs of a higher power at work directly, and nothing but a higher power at work. In the first scenario, God dealt with the aunt directly. In the second scenario, He works using all the ordinary means. So if someone tries to whip up religious excitement by acting as though an ordinary providence was a miracle, what they are doing is devaluing what actual miracles are.

When God has intervened in a direct sort of way, you don’t get to pronounce on it as though you had somehow cracked the Dt. 29:29 code. No, nothing of the kind. All you have done is demonstrated that you know how to identify intelligent design.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Malachi Tarchannen
Malachi Tarchannen
8 months ago

This reminds me of a joke, a very poignant joke.
A man was laying shingles on his roof when he lost his footing, his balance, and every bit of his cool. As he was sliding off the roof toward certain injury or death, he cried out to God. Time was of the essence, and so his prayer amounted to a simple “God, help me!”
A nail near the edge of the roof, having not yet been removed, snagged his belt loop and arrested the man’s fall.
“Oh, never mind,” the man said.

5 months ago

I expected the punchline to say that the nail catching his belt gave him a terrible wedgie with his full body weight on his loins, so he says,
“Never mind! Stop! Don’t save me! DON’T save me!”

8 months ago

so your point is basically that God provides, period.

8 months ago

From the Aunt’s position, the Lord did put a burden on her heart. and she acted in faith. Happens to Christians all the time. (Happens to unbelievers sometimes.)

8 months ago

Hi Doug, here you wrote that “Cessationism requires that the aunt not say anything in her letter like, “God told me to send you this.”” and then later you wrote “In the first scenario, God dealt with the aunt directly”. A genuine question: If it’s true that God could not have “told” the aunt anything, then what does it mean that God “dealt” with the aunt directly? How could God have “dealt” with her to communicate specific knowledge (your niece has a need of $67.15) or inspire specific action (write a check to your niece for $67.15), without “telling” her… Read more »

8 months ago
Reply to  Beau

Beau: 👍👍👍👍👍

JP Patches
JP Patches
8 months ago

Sigh. Someone really should tell Officer James Wells that God doesn’t speak to humans anymore, what with cessation and all.


Bill Combs
Bill Combs
8 months ago

If the aunt had it laid on her heart to send a check then she got special revelation outside of Scripture. I don’t see how you can call it any other thing than special revelation.

Why Christians Should Have No Problem with an Atheist as the World Richest Man

[…] with the sovereign ruler of the universe. We ask for specific provisions, and he does it in specific response to our specific prayers. […]

5 months ago

Well, just because it isn’t necessarily so that cessationism requires all miracles and non-sign gifts to cease…
doesn’t mean that the most strident voices for cessationism will embrace those ideas (though they say they believe in divine activity, they behave like deists.)
How much signage does prophesy (i.e. speaking from God that isn’t just quoting scripture out of context) require to be a sign gift? Joan of Arc presicted everything she said accurately except for the exact nature of her martyrdom (she was burned instead of exiled.)