Extracts taken and adapted from, “The Mystery of Providence”
Written by, John Flavel (1627-1691)
In nothing does Providence shine forth more gloriously in this world than in ordering the occasions, instruments and means of conversion of the people of God.
However skillfully its hand has molded our bodies, however tenderly it has preserved them and however bountifully it has provided for them; if it had not also ordered some means or other for your conversion, all the former favors and benefits it had done for you mean little. This, O this, is the most excellent benefit you will ever receive from God’s hand. You are more indebted to God for this, than for all your other mercies. And in explaining this performance of Providence, I cannot but think your hearts must be deeply affected. This is a subject which every gracious heart loves to steep its thoughts in. It is certainly the sweetest history that ever they repeat; they love to think and talk of it. The places where, and instruments by whom this work was wrought are exceedingly endearing to them for the work’s sake, yea, endeared to that degree, that, for many years after, their hearts have melted when they have but passed occasionally by those places or but seen the faces of those persons that were used as instruments in the hand of Providence for their good. As no doubt but Jacob’s Bethel was ever after that night sweet to his thoughts (Gen. 48. 3), so other saints have had their Bethels as well as he. O blessed places, times, and instruments! O the deep, the sweet impressions, never to be erased out of the memory or heart, that this Providence has made upon those on whom it wrought this blessed effect at years of discretion, and in a more perceptible way!
But lest any poor soul should be discouraged by the display of this Providence because he cannot remember the time, place, instruments and manner when and by which conversion work was wrought, I will therefore premise this necessary distinction, to prevent injury to some, while I design benefit to others.
Conversion, as to the subjects of it, may be considered two ways; either as it is more clearly wrought in person of riper years, who in their youthful days were more profane and vile; or upon persons in their tender years, into whose hearts grace was more imperceptibly and indiscernibly instilled by God’s blessing upon pious education. In the former sort, the distinct acts of the Spirit, illuminating, convincing, humbling, drawing them to Christ and sealing them are more evident and discernible. In the latter, these are more obscure and confused. They can remember that God gave them an esteem and liking of godly persons, care of duty and conscience of sin; but as to the time, place, instruments and manner of the work, they can give but a slender account of them. However, if the work is savingly wrought in them, there is no reason they should be troubled because the circumstances of it are not so evident to them as they are to others. Let the substance and reality of the work appear and there is no reason to afflict yourselves because of the lack of evidence of such circumstance.
But where the circumstances as well as substance are clear to a man, when we can call to remembrance the time when, the place where, the instrument by whom that work was wrought, it must needs be exceedingly sweet, and they cannot but yield a fresh delight to the soul every time they are reflected upon.
There are many of the following occasions which, it may be, we took for stragglers when they first befell us, but they proved scouts sent out from the main body of Providence, which they make way for. Now there are various things in those Providences that respect this work, which are exceedingly sweet and taking, as namely: The wonderful strangeness and unaccountableness of this work of Providence in casting us into the way and ordering the occasions, yea, the minutest circumstances about this work. Thus you find that the Eunuch, at that very instant when he was reading the prophet Esaias, had an interpreter, one among a thousand that joins his chariot just as his mind was by a fit occasion prepared to receive the first light of the knowledge of Christ (Acts 8. 26-30).
And how strange was that change, however far it went, upon Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5. 1-4)! that the Syrians in their incursion should bright away this girl – likely her beauty was the inducement – and she must be present to Naaman’s wife, and relate to her the power of God that accompanied the prophet; though you find in that particular case there had never been an instance given before (Luke 4. 27). Doubtless the whole of this affair was guided by the signal direction of Providence.
And now let me expostulate a little with your soul, reader. Have you been duly aware of your obligation to Providence for this inestimable favor? O what it has done for you! There are various kinds of mercies conveyed to men by the hand of Providence, but none like this; in all the treasury of its benefits none is found like this. Did it cast you into the way of conversion, and order the means and occasions of it for you, when you little thought of any such thing? How dear and sweet should the remembrance of it be to your soul! methinks it should astonish and melt you every time you reflect upon it. Such mercies should never grow stale or look like common things to you, for do but seriously consider the following particulars.
How surprising was the mercy which Providence performed for you in that day! Providence had a design upon you for your eternal good, which you did not understand. The time of mercy was now fully come; the decree was now ready to bring forth that mercy, with which it had gone big from eternity, and its gracious design must be executed by the hand of Providence, so far as concerned the external means and instruments. How aptly did it cause all things to fall in with that design, though you did not know the meaning of it?
Look over the before-mentioned examples, and you will see the blessed work of conversion begun upon those souls, when they minded it no more than Saul did a kingdom that morning he went out ‘to seek his father’s asses’ (1 Sam. 9. 3, 20). Providence might truly have said to you in that day, as Christ said to Peter: ‘What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know it hereafter’ (John 13. 7). God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts; but as the heavens are higher than the earth so are His thoughts higher than ours, and His ways than our ways. Little did Zacchaeus think when he climbed up into the sycamore tree to see Christ as He passed that way what a design of mercy Christ had upon him, who took thence the occasion of becoming both his Guest and Saviour (Luke 19. 5-8). And as little did some of you think what the aim of Providence was when you went, some out of custom, others out of curiosity, if not worse motives to hear such a sermon. O how stupendous are the ways of God!
What a distinguishing and seasonable mercy was ushered in by Providence in that day! It brought you to the means of salvation in a good hour. In the very nick of time, when the angel troubled the waters, you were brought to the pool (John 5. 4). Now the accepted day was come, the Spirit was in the ordinance or providence that converted you, and you were set in the way of it. It may be you had heard many hundred sermons before, but nothing would stick till now, because the hour was not come. The Lord did, as it were, call in the word for such a man, such a woman, and Providence said: ‘Lord, here he is, I have brought him before thee.’ There were many others under that sermon that received no such mercy. You yourselves had heard many before, but not to that advantage, as it is said: ‘And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian’ (Luke 4. 27). So there were many poor, unconverted souls beside you under the Word that day, and it may be, to none of them was salvation sent that day but to you. O blessed Providence that set you in the way of mercy at that time!
What a weighty and important mercy was providentially directed to your souls that day. There are mercies of all sizes and kinds in the hands of Providence to dispense to the sons of men. Its left hand is full of blessings as well as its right. It has health and riches, honours and pleasures, as well as Christ and salvation to dispense. The world is full of its left hand favours, but the blessings of its right hand are invaluably precious and few there be that receive them. It performs thousands of kind offices for men; but among them all, this is the chiefest, to lead and direct them to Christ. For consider, of all mercies, this comes through most and greatest difficulties (Eph. 1. 19, 20).
This is a spiritual mercy, excelling in dignity of nature all others, more than gold excels the dirt under your feet (Rev. 3. 18). One such gift is worth thousands of other mercies.
This is a mercy immediately flowing out of the fountain of God’s electing love, a mercy never dropped into any but an elect vessel (1 Thess. 1. 4, 5).
This is a mercy that infallibly secures salvation; for as we may argue from conversion to election, looking back, so from conversion to salvation, looking forward (Heb. 6. 9).
Lastly, this is an eternal mercy, one which will stick by you when father, mother, wife, children, estate, honours, health and life shall fail you (John 4. 14).
O, therefore, set a special mark upon that Providence that set you in the way of this mercy. It has performed that for you which all the ministers on earth and angels in heaven could never have performed. This is a mercy that puts weight and value into the smallest circumstance that relates to it.