Mountain valley during sunrise. Natural summer landscape

God’s Providence: Wonder and Mercy!

          Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1696) was one of the great Puritan ministers, who wrote prolifically, and is especially known for his A Body of Practical Divinity (1692).

          One of Watson’s popular writings was The Christian’s Charter: Shewing the Privileges of a Believer (1652; sixth edition, 1665. All page citations below are taken from the 1665 edition. Some original spellings have been maintained.). This book took its “text” from Paul’s words, as Watson wrote: “…all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollo, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours, and ye are Christs, and Christ is Gods” (1 Cor. 3: 21, 22, 23).

          “All things are yours…”. Watson called this “the inventory of a Christian” (2). Watson saw the “Doctrine” here to be that: “all things in heaven and earth are the portion and prerogative of a believer. He that overcometh shall inherit all things, Rev. 21.7.” This, exclaimed Watson is “a large Inventory!” (6). “All things,” he continued: “we can have but all” (7).

          Watson grounded the promise that “all things are yours” for believers in “the Covenant of Grace.” God’s “covenant of grace” is the believers’ “great Charter.” Through this Covenant, “God settles all things in heaven and on earth upon us.” By sin, humans had “forfeited all” (7). But God’s covenant is “the issue and birth of God’s love, it is the legacy of free-grace” (8) God establishes the covenant of love and grace so that “all that is in God is ours” (9). 

          Believers receive all that is in God’s covenant of grace as they receive Jesus Christ. Jesus is “the pillar and hinge upon which the Covenant of Grace turns” (10). The Covenant is “founded upon Christ, and is sealed in his blood” (10). “All things are yours,” said Paul, and “you are Christ’s.”

          Believers in Jesus Christ receive all “things present” and “things to come.” In this life and in the life beyond, we receive “all things” of God through Jesus Christ (12).

          Watson spends many pages describing the “things present” that belong to Christian believers. These include the forgiveness or remission of our sins (42); regeneration or the “transforming” of the heart and “casting it into a new mold” in Christ (48); and Adoption, our becoming children in the family of God (52).

          Then Watson turned to the “things to come” which belong to believers in Jesus Christ: “When things present are taken away, yet things to come are ours” (77). “Things present” are the “earnest” or “first fruits” of “that which is to come” (78). “Things to come are yours.”

          What are these “things to come”? Watson discusses twelve of these “prerogatives,” which he called “twelve Prerogatives Royal” (79). Among these are the conquering of death; being with Christ; the Believer’s Glorious Inheritance; the Perfection of Love; and the Resurrection of the Body.

          The Firth Prerogative Watson discusses is “Our Knowledge Shall Be Clear” (167ff.). Included here are “Five Mysteries God will clear up for us in Heaven.” These mysteries are the Mystery of: the Trinity, the Incarnation, Scripture, Providence, and Hearts. Watson provides interesting discussions of all these mysteries.

                                                                                  The Mystery of Providence 

          The mystery of Providence is of particular value.

          The doctrine of Providence means God leads and guides the world and the lives of individuals. Christians seek to do God’s will and see the events and circumstances of their lives as expressions of God’s leading and guiding them through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians see God’s providence through the course of their lives as they seek to live in faith and serve Jesus Christ.

          Watson called providence “the Queen of the world; it is the hand that turnes all the wheels in the universe” (175). He quoted the early church theologian, John Chrysostom, who called it “the Pilot that steeres the ship in the Creation.” God is intimately involved with the world God has created. God leads and guides the world—and human history. That human history includes the living history of each of us as part of God’s creation and as those created by the Lord.

          Watson notes that “providences are often dark,” that “God writes sometimes in short- hand: the characters of Providence are so various and strange, and our eyes are so dimme, that we know not what to make of Providence” (175). This is the reality all Christians face. We often are not aware of the ways God’s Spirit is leading and guiding us. Then, when strange or distressing or difficult life situations arise, we wonder what God is doing and “what to make” of God’s involvement in our lives. This can test our faith. “Hence we are ready to censure that which we do not understand,” wrote Watson; and “we think that things are very eccentric and disorderly.”

          But Watson goes on to say that “God’s Providence is sometimes secret, always wise.” God’s providence is “often sad”—as when the righteous perish, while pursuing “a righteous cause” (175-176). One’s way may be “pious,” but “it is not always prosperous.” On the other side, those who “work wickedness” may be “delivered.” So our “candle” may seem to be in the dark; and “the people of God cannot tell what God is a doing” (176).

          In spite of it all, Watson anticipates that when God’s people are in heaven, they shall see the reason of these transactions (John 13:7). “They shall see that every Providence served for the fulfilling of God’s Promise”: “that all things shall work together for good, Rom. 8:28.” To explain this, Watson used the image of a watch: “In a Watch, the wheeles seem to move cross one to another, but all carry on the motion of the Watch, all serve to make the Alarme strike.” So, wrote Watson, “the wheeles of Providence seem to move crosse, but all shall carry on the goode of the elect.” For “all the lines shall meet at last in the centre of the Promise; in heaven, as we shall see Mercy and Justice, so we shall see Promises, and Providences kissing each other: Our light shall be cleare” (176-177).

          Watson looks to the future promise of heaven where believers will gain perspectives and understandings of God’s earthly providences. All God’s actions focus on fulfilling God’s promise that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This great promise of God binds all things together. This is the great purpose of God’s providence here on earth. God is at work for good for God’s people. The perspective of heaven will make clear what has been mysterious and obscure and vexing among God’s people on earth. God’s “promises” and “providences” are intimately related—each being realities with which we here and now can believe in and trust to be at work in our lives.

          Watson went on to use the image of a hill: when one is at the bottom of a hill and looks up, that person “cannot see very far.” But when one is at the top of the hill, one may see “many miles distant” (177). Watson drew the conclusion that “here the Saints of God are in the valley of tears, they are at the bottom of the hill, and cannot tell what God is a doing. But when they come to heaven, and shall be on top of the mount, they shall see all the glorious transactions of God’s Providence.” God’s purposes now which we experience as mysterious will all be made plain from our clear knowledge in heaven!

                                                                                         Wonder and Mercy

          Then Watson made a comment about what the saints in heaven will know—which, I believe, can be helpful to us here and now as we contemplate God’s providence in our lives. Watson said that when the saints in heaven look upon God’s actions in leading and guiding, there will be “never a Providence but they shall see either a wonder or a mercy wrapt up in it” (177).

          Think of that! As we perceive God’s providential purposes and actions in our lives, as we see God’s providence in our day to day living—we will experience God’s providence as bringing us: Wonder or Mercy!

          “Wonder” must surely be in the surprises of our lives—which we believe are brought to us by God. These are things we do not expect, which “out of the blue” emerge to us and for us. These are so unforeseen and surprising—that we simply “wonder”: How can this be? I didn’t see this coming! This is the work of God! We “wonder” at the ways God provides and helps or guides—at the ways God’s providence surprises us by joy!

          “Mercy” must surely be the ways we experience God’s providence—as giving us what we totally do not deserve; as answering our prayers—often longstanding prayers—and giving us what we had hoped for and deeply desired, and prayed for—long and often. God has given us better blessings than we deserve. God has heard and answered our petitions and granted the desires of our hearts. These are God’s mercy to us—and our hearts rejoice in deepest praise and thanks!

          Watson said that in heaven, the saints will see all providences of God have either “wonder” or a “mercy” wrapped up in them. If we are attentive to the providences of God we experience now, day by day: we may see the same! God’s providence sometimes evokes Wonder. God’s providence sometimes brings Mercy. Wonder and Mercy—these are the ways God leads and guides us! Watch for God’s “Wonder” and “Mercy”!

          Puritans, like Watson, often kept “records of providence.” They would record in a book what they considered to be God’s work in their lives. Over the course of years, surely there would be many “wonders;” and many “mercies” in those books of providences!

                                                                                      Beautiful to Behold

          Our ultimate understanding of God’s providence is when—as Watson said, our knowledge will be “clear.” This is as we are saints in heaven. He said that as a painter (“limner”—Watson) proceeds toward a final portrait—the lines and colors here and there—like images of the hands, or feet—do not seem to make sense. But when all is laid out according to all its “parts” and “lineaments,” in all their colors—the painting is “beautiful to behold”!

          So now, as those who live in the Church, we see “dark pieces of God’s Providence represented.” It is impossible, said Watson, that “we should judge God’s work by pieces” (178). But when we “come to heaven and see the full body and portraiture of God’s Providence drawn out in its vive [bright] colors, it will be a most glorious sight to behold”! God’s Providence, said Watson, “shall be unrid[d]led [explained]”! Said Watson: “Our light shall be cleare”!


 Donald K. McKim is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a former pastor, seminary Academic Dean and Professor of Theology, as well as Executive Editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press. He has written and edited a number of books including Daily Devotions with Herman Bavinck: Believing and Growing in Christian Faith; Everyday Prayer with the Puritans; Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions; and the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. He and his wife LindaJo live in Germantown, Tennessee.

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