Throughout its history, Reformed theology has been criticized on several different fronts. One of these criticisms says that if God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, then God is the only true cause of anything in the world. This criticism is typically given within the context of discussions of human freedom. If God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, some say, then our choices do not matter. They have no real power to cause anything to happen. Only the Lord causes events to occur in creation if Reformed theology is correct.
Such criticism is popular but misplaced. With Scripture, Reformed thought insists that God works out all things according to His will (Eph. 1:11). So, if something comes to pass, it is because the Lord ordained it—He established that it would certainly happen. But Reformed theology likewise insists, with Scripture, that God is not the only cause in creation. He is the first cause, the being who makes cause and effect possible and whose decree governs all other causes. Yet, in the created order there are also secondary causes, things that immediately produce effects within creation. These secondary causes are included in God’s decree, which is the ultimate cause of all things, but these secondary causes nevertheless have real power to make things happen.
God ordains not only the ends or results in creation but also the means by which those ends or results are brought about. The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here: “Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (WCF 5.2). Three categories of secondary causes, or means to God’s ends, are mentioned: secondary causes that operate necessarily, secondary causes that operate freely, and secondary causes that operate contingently.
We will conclude today by looking at what it means for God to ordain things according to secondary causes that operate necessarily. Essentially, the confession has in mind here impersonal causes such as physical laws. Physical laws cause things to happen by necessity. The law of gravity does not choose whether it will allow a book to fall from a shelf. If a book moves far enough over the edge of a shelf, it will by necessity start falling to the ground. Similarly, because of the way God made the natural order, the sun necessarily rises each morning and the seasons change on schedule.