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Primary & Secondary Causes

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
October 4, 2022 12:01 am

Primary & Secondary Causes

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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October 4, 2022 12:01 am

The source of all life, being, and motion is God Himself. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. Today, R.C. Sproul explores the relationship between the sovereign power of God and the contingent power of His creation.

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Coming up next on Renewing Your Mind… Have you ever thought about that? God is in charge of everything, so why do we need to pray about anything? If His will is inevitable, what do our prayers accomplish?

This week on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Sproul is making his way through the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most precise and comprehensive statements of biblical Christianity. And today we'll learn how God can be sovereign and still invite us to pray.

We're still considering now the third chapter of the Westminster Confession on God's eternal decree. And we've been looking at section 1 where we see that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass from all eternity. And then we saw the relief that comes after the semicolon, but not in such a way as to do violence to the will of the creatures.

And we mentioned that and spent some time on that, but there's that last portion of section 1 that I want to speak briefly to. The final statement, Nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. Now that language, the liberty or contingency of second causes, I understand is a little bit arcane. It's not the kind of language that we use every day in our Christian devotions. But I'd like to just take a moment to define what is meant in there because I think it's very, very important for us to understand, particularly in the Christian environment or lack of it in which we live at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We live in a world that has been vastly secularized since the seventeenth century where we see now a kind of skepticism towards all things supernatural. And from the time we're little children in the school systems that we are educated, we get a worldview presented to us that we may not immediately recognize that is on a collision course with the view of God in the world that is taught in the Scriptures. There was a crisis of authority in the sixteenth century with the Reformation and the great split in the church, and the question was saying, well if we have a theological question, now where do we go to get it settled?

We can't just appeal to Rome for a papal decree to settle matters once and for all because half of Christendom now has revolted against the authority of the pope and so on. But not only was there a great dispute theologically and religiously in the sixteenth century, but you may remember that there was something else going on in the sixteenth century in the intellectual world, and that was the Copernican revolution which brought a crisis of faith in the things of God vis-à-vis the things of science. And so you saw this big tension emerge with Galileo and Copernicus and so on. And that spilled over into the seventeenth century, and the seventeenth century saw a great struggle between a whole new scientific understanding of the universe that had seriously departed from historic Christianity. And that was with the advent of what was called by many a mechanistic universe. That is, the universe began to be seen as a vast cosmic machine that yes indeed owed its original creation to a supernatural creator, but that this supernatural creator invented this machine and it was like a clock, as the deists suggested, where God was the great clockmaker, and He had fixed the various gears and things into the machine, and then He winds up the clock and then steps out of the picture and lets the clock function by its own internal mechanisms. And what was involved in this beyond the analogy or the metaphor of the clock was the idea that the universe is a vast machine that operates according to mechanical laws, the laws of mechanics and the laws of physics.

Very little was known about the nature of electromagnetism or of gravity, and still very little is known about these things, but the idea that was so basic was that the universe operates on the basis of its own internal power supply. And this became a crisis for philosophers such as Descartes and others, Bishop Berkeley later on in the 18th century, and they were wondering whether there's any place left for God in the daily lives of people. Or is God now so remote that He got the universe started, but He's like Aristotle's first cause, but after He creates, He's no longer engaged with His universe? Well, Descartes was one of the first to insist upon a distinction between primary and secondary causes. This distinction or the language of primary and secondary causality came to the forefront of discussions in the 17th century because of this new view of the universe as a self-operating machine. And let me just say, even though many of the scientific theories of the 17th century have since left the consciousness of modern science, still on the street today the average person has been led to believe that the universe does in fact operate according to fixed internal laws, as if these laws were independent of God's maintaining them every moment. Now, over against that, as I say, the Christian philosophers of the 17th century made a distinction between primary and secondary causality.

Remember, a cause is that agent which brings about change or brings about an effect. And I could illustrate it by just taking this book here and saying, now I'm holding this book in my hand, and I'm going to make a decision in a moment to make this book fall upon this table, trusting on the law of gravity and the laws of inertia. And it's going to happen as soon as I take my grip off of this because right now the only thing that's holding this book up and keeping it from falling down is the strength of my hand. And when I release the book, I predict, and this is the essence of science, predictability, I'm going to predict that this book will not maintain its posture where it is now and floatier in thin air, but will actually succumb to the laws of gravity and fall down. Are you ready? Watch. In no time, remember, no time will my hands ever leave my wrists. And so you watch carefully. Here we go.

One, two, three, just as I predicted. Now you say, well, what caused that? And I say, well, there were lots of things involved. The fact that you released the power that you had over the book, you removed your hold on it, that was one of the things that contributed to the effect of this book's falling to the table. The other thing, most importantly, is gravity. This book, I now subjected it to the law of gravity that has things fall that have weight like this.

We're not in a situation of weightlessness here. And we've been taught to think that these laws operate independent from God. Now from the biblical perspective, ultimately we would say the ultimate cause for the motion of this book was the power of God, because without the power of God, I don't have any power, gravity doesn't have any power, the book doesn't have any power, nothing in the universe has any power, because all power finds its source in the power supply of God Himself, that He does not create and then step out of the picture, but whatever He creates, He upholds with the power of His being. He sustains it, and we'll look at that more deeply when we come to the doctrine of providence in the Confession. But the idea here is that whatever power I exert, whatever power gravity exerts, whatever power the wind exerts, whatever power the rain exerts, whatever power electromagnetism or electricity exerts, all of those powers that we find in this world are dependent upon God for their power.

Now again, the Confession is saying that secondary causes like my raising my hand or releasing something or striking something, whatever it is, or the power of gravity or the rainfall, all of these are real causes. They're real powers. They really exist. There really is such a thing as gravity. There really is such a thing as electricity or atomic energy.

Those are real. But the point is they're not ultimate because they can't do anything. They are ultimately impotent in and of themselves, but their power is derivative and dependent upon the only primary power in their universe, who is God. Now what's the biblical basis for this? Again, I've told you this before that I think one of the most profound statements in all of Scripture is found in the book of Acts when Paul was debating with the philosophers in Athens at the Areopagus, and he quotes them, and he says, In Him, that is in God, we live and move and have our being. Early on in this course I talked about the ancient search for ultimate reality on the question of being.

And I would say that the three grand questions that fascinated and vexed the greatest minds of antiquity were the questions of life, being, and motion. And what Paul is saying here from a biblical perspective is the source of all life is God, the source of all being is God, and the source of all motion, all change, all causes is God Himself. Apart from Him, we could do nothing. Apart from Him, electricity could do nothing. Apart from Him, none of these powers that we recognize in the world can function at all. When we talk about the laws of nature, we're talking about not something that exists independent within the structure of nature, but something that simply describes the normal, regular way by which God orders His universe. But it is His power that stands behind, under, and over every other power in this world. Now also this distinction between primary and secondary causes relates to this business that everything that takes place has been eternally foreordained by God, also to this degree, that God when He ordains the ends of things that He decrees will come to pass, He also decrees the means by which they will come to pass.

That is, He decrees what secondary causes He will use to bring His primary purposes to bear. That's why when people say, Well, if God ordains everything that comes to pass, why should I pray? Is my prayer just an exercise in futility? Are my prayers impotent?

No. The Bible says that prayer avails much, which is to say there's great power in prayer. But just remember that the power that's in prayer is a secondary power. Its ultimate power rests in God, but God is pleased to bring His purposes about through prayers. He doesn't need those prayers. He can work without those prayers, but He's pleased to work in and through those prayers.

Let me give you an illustration. The mightiest act that was celebrated in the Old Testament, the mightiest act of God, was the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt. And we remember the great crisis moment after all of the plagues and after the Passover where the angel of death came and spared all the children of the Israelites, and they escaped from Egypt, but they were being pursued by all of the army of Pharaoh with their chariots. And behind the people of Israel were the chariots, and Israel stood, as we were told, between Migdal and the sea. In front of them was an impassable sea.

And so talk about being between a rock and a hard place. They were trapped with no route of escape open to them. Remember Moses raised his arm at God's command, and what happened? The Red Sea parted, and the people of Israel marched through the Red Sea on dry ground. And then when the chariots of Pharaoh sought to pursue them, the seas closed up again and engulfed the Egyptians and drowned them.

Remember? Reminds me that, you know, when I was in seminary they were saying, well the Red Sea was really the Reed Sea, and there was only like six inches of water, and so this was no big deal. And there was this story of this little boy that went to Sunday school, and this Sunday school teacher taught him the liberal thing about the Reed Sea. And after Sunday school his dad said, well, what did you learn in Sunday school, son? And he said, boy, I learned that God is really something, dad.

He said, how's that? He said, I just learned that God drowned the whole Egyptian army in six inches of water. But in any case, if you read the text, what is it that causes the sea to separate? Is it Moses' arm?

No. Is it the voice of God? God causes a great wind to blow, and the wind blows, and this extraordinary wind is what backs up the waters on either side. Now do you see that what God did there was He used a secondary cause to bring about the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians.

That's what we're talking about when we're talking about secondary causes. God alone has the power to convert the soul. And when we talk, as we will later, about regeneration by which the heart of darkness is changed into a heart of light and where the sinner who is unwilling to come to God is suddenly made willing because God intervenes and changes the disposition of the human heart by an act of His grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we describe that work of regeneration, we say that the work of regeneration is a work of God by which He immediately changes the disposition of the human soul. What do we mean by immediately?

We don't mean in a hurry-up sense or quickly. We mean without any secondary means. When your life is turned upside down and your heart is changed, when you are converted, that is a supernatural work by the Holy Ghost working without winds blowing, without candles burning. It's the direct power of God the Holy Spirit on your soul, making you a new creation when He does that. That's the primary causal agency of the Holy Ghost without any secondary cause.

Now at the same time, we say that God has been pleased to save the world through the foolishness of what? Preaching. That it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. Well, the gospel itself is a secondary power. It's a real power. It's a powerful thing, but it only brings about the desired effect when? When God the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word and uses the power of the Word to change the heart.

And so I find that this distinction between primary and secondary causality is not only helpful but very important to keep our thinking straight, lest we say that we're religious but actually have an atheistic worldview as if the world in which we live were something that functioned independent from the power of God. You want to see the power of God in action? Everything that happens out there is a manifestation of the power of God. We have lost the capacity to see the revelation of God in nature, that the heavens declare His glory. We're talking about a God whose holiness fills the whole world, but we have been blinded to His hand that's all around us because we've really have been brainwashed into thinking all of these things happen by their own power, and they've all been and they've all been secularized for us, and we've lost any sense of the sacred that is made manifest in nature. And so to summarize section one again, yes the affirmation is made that God from all eternity freely and immutably ordains whatsoever comes to pass.

But when He ordains whatever comes to pass, He does it without doing violence to the will of the creature. He works in and through the choices and the decisions that we make, and He does not thereby negate the reality or the significance of secondary causes. But rather the Bible again, not in the Old Testament just but also in the New Testament, you see over and over and over again the power of God being used and manifested through secondary causes. We are secondary causes. The preacher is a secondary cause. The evangelist is a secondary cause. Our prayers are secondary causes. Teaching, preaching, these are all secondary causes, and none of them are made insignificant by the prior affirmation that it is ultimately the primary power of God that makes any change possible in this world.

Think about that. God uses our prayers. He uses teaching and preaching to further His kingdom.

We may not fully understand this mystery, but it is a privilege to be used by our God. Dr. R.C. Sproul has helped us understand this difficult concept today here on Renewing Your Mind.

We are pleased to feature R.C. 's series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. And for your donation of any amount today, we'd like to send you a hardback edition of Dr. Sproul's teaching on the Westminster Confession. It's titled, Truths We Confess.

You can make your request and give your gift online at, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. We always appreciate hearing about how this program helps you understand God's Word and His holiness. We recently heard from Ginger. I'm a second-generation Dr. Sproul student, and I appreciate that he wants to impact the laymen.

My father was the least likely to be a student of Dr. Sproul. After three marriages, he came to Christ and he began listening and learning from Dr. Sproul. And so now, as I listen to Renewing Your Mind, I sometimes wonder if this is something my dad listened to.

Maybe he was at a Ligonier conference or heard Dr. Sproul or one of the other speakers. And so my father is with Dr. Sproul in heaven now, and thank you for Renewing Your Mind. It helps me as I press onward toward the goal for my price of the heavenward call of God in Christ Jesus. So thank you, and God bless you all.

Wow, what an encouragement to hear that. Ginger and her father have had access to this teaching because of the generosity of listeners through the years, and we want this ministry to reach even more generations. Would you consider giving a gift to Ligonier Ministries? We will send you Dr. Sproul's book, Truths We Confess, as our way of saying thank you.

Again, you can request online at, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. Well, the Apostle Paul knew that his teaching on predestination was going to cause some people to scratch their heads and in fact object. They say it's not fair that God from all eternity without a view to what we do makes His decision. And so the very fact that that's the objection He anticipates, it gives me great comfort that the Apostle Paul was the first one who had to deal with his doctrine of predestination being challenged on the grounds that it was unfair. R.C. will examine a term that is often associated with God's sovereignty, and that's God's foreknowledge. We hope you'll join us for the Wednesday edition of Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-27 13:45:54 / 2022-12-27 13:54:02 / 8

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