One of Scripture’s most difficult concepts is that God can bring good out of evil. We remember that Joseph’s brothers betrayed him and, upon being reunited with him in Egypt, feared his revenge. But Joseph said to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). That was God’s intention. He used the brothers’ treacherous activity in order to save lives, sanctify Joseph, and bring His plan to pass.
One of the most comforting passages in the New Testament is Paul’s statement that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We must be careful here. Paul does not say that everything that happens, considered in and of itself, is good. Nor is our theme song “Que Sera, Sera,” “Whatever will be, will be.” We do have the astonishing promise, however, that everything will work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. This means that even from the bad things that happen to us, God is bringing about good. This glorious concept means that we should trust God—even in the midst of tragedy, pain, disease, and suffering of all kinds. God assures us that He is working all things together for our good.
God can work all things together for good only if He is sovereign. If God is not sovereign over the details, He cannot guarantee His promise to work all things together for good, because one thing keeps lurking in the background: the maverick molecule. This molecule may set off a collision with other molecules that can end up disrupting the best plans of God.
Yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1)
These are important qualifying words, each one carefully chosen. The confession says that God ordained whatever comes to pass. He ordained not only the ends, but also the means. He ordained not only that Christ be crucified, but also the human instruments through whom that crucifixion would come to pass, including Caiaphas, Judas, and Pontius Pilate. Joseph was correct when he said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The end that God had in view when ordaining the betrayal of Joseph was the rescue of all Israel. The means by which God brought to pass that holy and righteous end were the wicked actions of Joseph’s brothers.
To help clarify this, theologians for centuries have distinguished between primary and secondary causality. In a football game, when the quarterback throws the ball to a wide receiver, in one very real sense the quarterback is the cause of that ball’s flying through the air, having exercised the strength of his arm. The quarterback is the outside force that acts on the ball by throwing it to the receiver.
Paul teaches that it is in God that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the ultimate source of all power in the universe. The creature is in every respect dependent on the Creator for its very being and for its continuing existence. So the quarterback is the secondary cause of the ball’s flying through the air to the receiver, and God is the primary cause.
Deism, a religious movement that developed out of the Enlightenment, was popular for only a short period, but it had a strong impact on some of America’s founding fathers, such as Thomas Paine. Deists taught that God was the first cause of the universe, and He created it to run on its own. Since then, God has remained remote and aloof from the world and has been uninvolved in its activities. God was the great watchmaker, who built the watch, wound it up, and then left it alone to run by itself.
Almost no one today calls himself a deist. As popular as deism was in the eighteenth century, it has virtually disappeared as a conscious system of belief. However, it is likely that the overwhelming majority of modern Americans, including most professing evangelicals, are in their thinking fundamentally deistic. The fundamental concept behind deism is that the universe is like a machine. It may owe its origin to a divine act of creation, but it works by its own inherent forces. All our instruction in science assumes the independent causal power of natural things. But that assumption is on a collision course with biblical Christianity, which at the very beginning makes a radical distinction between the Creator and the creature. God not only creates things but He also sustains them. We are as dependent on Him for our continued existence as we were for the beginning of our existence. If God were to cease to exist tonight, what would happen to us? If the world’s very existence is dependent on God, then we and the whole world would collapse.
What does this have to do with primary and secondary causes? Christianity allows for the existence of real causal power in this world. The quarterback really does exercise power when he throws the football; God does not throw it for him. But he could not throw it were it not for his moment-by-moment dependence on the being and power of God. Whatever power is exhibited in this world is not due to an independent machine with its own source of power and energy. What scientists call the laws of nature we call the normal operations of the sovereign God. They are His laws; they are not independent in nature. They simply describe the regular, normal way in which God manages or governs His universe. He is the primary cause of everything that comes to pass, the power supply for all force; secondary causes are always dependent for their power on the primary source of power.
Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Truths We Confess by Dr. R.C. Sproul and was originally published on March 23, 2020.