Things That Fall Out Contingently
What causes the grass to grow? According to the biblical doctrine of divine providence, the answer is both God and the sun. What caused Ronald Reagan to be elect-ed president of the United States in the 1980 presidential election? The biblical doctrine of providence says both God and the individual choices of millions of American voters. In both cases, the Lord’s de-cree is the first cause that establishes what happens, and then the sun and the American voters, respectively, are the secondary causes that serve as the means through which these events occur. God ordains the means as well as the ends, and secondary causes really do shape what happens in history. But they do not operate outside of the Lord’s overarching decree and active governance.
The grass growing represents something that falls out under God’s decree necessarily with respect to secondary causes. According to God’s design, when the right conditions are met in the natural order, grass necessarily grows under the light and warmth of the sun. The result of the presidential election represents something that falls out under God’s decree freely with respect to secondary causes. Accord-ing to God’s decree, the voters in 1980 freely chose Reagan because he was the candidate they preferred. But there is one final category of secondary causes that Westminster Confession 5.2 identifies in Scripture—secondary causes that cause things to fall out contingently.
In this category, we are talking about what we might call “if, then” relationships. God has ordained certain events to fall out according to His decree through various situations in which one thing occurs if condition x is met but something different if condition y is met. Just consider today’s passage. The Lord tells Jeremiah that He will execute His judgment and blessing according to how people act. A promised judgment will be averted if sinners repent and a promised blessing will be withdrawn if people fall into reckless, impenitent transgression (Jer. 18:1–10). What happens to the people is contingent on their response to God.
We see this contingency in many areas, but Scripture often applies it in the context of salvation. If people repent and believe on Christ, they will be saved. If they do not, they will be condemned (Mark 16:15–16). Under God’s sovereign decree, both the response of people and their destiny are determined in eternity past, but that does not make their choices and their effects any less real or important.
We cannot know in advance what God has decreed, but we do know the conditions for blessing and cursing He has revealed in His Word. We should pay heed to those conditions, knowing that if we trust in Him, we will be blessed forever, but if we reject Him, we will be cast out of His gracious presence for eternity.
Passages for Further Study