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The legend of Oedipus is often considered the classic example of Greek fatalism. Troubled by doubts about his parentage, the protagonist consults an oracle who declares that he is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Although Oedipus repudiates the awful prophecy, events cruelly conspire to bring about its fulfillment. All his efforts to evade his fate prove futile.

The Reformed or Calvinistic doctrines of providence and predestination are often charged with being fatalistic. Yet this characterization trades on some deep confusions. Calvinism does indeed affirm that all events in creation are foreordained by God. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3.1). Nevertheless, the confession immediately adds that this divine foreordination does not render meaningless the wills of God’s creatures. On the contrary, God normally works out His eternal purposes though secondary causes such as human agents and natural processes. Biblical examples of God directing human actions to His own ends include the story of Joseph (Gen. 45:5–8; 50:20), the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel (Isa. 10:5–11), and the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4:27–28).

How, then, does Calvinism differ from fatalism? Shouldn’t a Calvinist admit that Judas was fated to betray Jesus (John 17:12; Acts 1:16) just as Oedipus was fated to kill his father? We should note first that “fate” was understood by the ancients to be an impersonal force or principle that applied equally to men and gods. Just as the Greeks failed to acknowledge a transcendent personal Creator, so they lacked any notion of a sovereign God who directs all things “to his own holy ends” (WCF 5.4). For the pagan fatalist, there is no divine hand of providence, no overarching plan of God. There is no rhyme or reason to the fated outcomes; the universe is a theater of absurdity and tragedy. Contrast that with the biblical worldview, according to which God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) and “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

There’s no contradiction in affirming both that future outcomes depend crucially on our choices and that God sovereignly orders all things.

A second major difference between Calvinism and fatalism has already been touched on. Calvinism maintains that God determines not only the ends—the final outcomes of events—but also the means to those ends. In other words, in God’s providence the means are coordinated with the ends such that the ends depend on the means. Thus, God did not merely ordain that Joseph would end up second in authority to Pharaoh; He ordained the entire series of events that culminated in that outcome, including the sinful actions of Joseph’s brothers. We shouldn’t imagine that God planned for Joseph to become so significant to Pharaoh regardless of how his brothers treated him.

Fatalism, on the other hand, tends to disconnect the ends from the means, implying that our lives will turn out a certain way no matter what we do. A contemporary illustration is provided by a recent series of movies in which a group of people initially cheat Death, but their escape always turns out to be short-lived. The Grim Reaper eventually catches up with each of them, despite their attempts to avoid his scythe. Fatalism suggests that our actions are truly futile; they make no practical difference to the outcome. Yet that idea is entirely foreign to the Reformed doctrine of providence. Our future outcomes most surely depend on the choices we make in this life. There’s no contradiction in affirming both that future outcomes depend crucially on our choices and that God sovereignly orders all things, including future outcomes and the choices that lead to them. Yes, God foreordains the actions of His creatures, but He also foreordains that their actions have significant consequences.

A sporting illustration may help clarify the point. Imagine you’re playing a round of golf with a friend, Jacob, who has a habit of conflating Calvinism and fatalism. At the fifth tee, you hit a sweet drive down the fairway. The ball lands squarely on the green and rolls triumphantly into the cup for a hole-in-one.

Instead of congratulating you, Jacob has a mischievous grin on his face. “You’re a Calvinist, aren’t you?” “Indeed,” you reply, intrigued to hear where this is going. “So you believe that God has foreordained all things from eternity, including that hole-in-one. Well, if God foreordained it, it didn’t really matter how you hit the ball. It was predestined to end up in the hole regardless.”

Jacob isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks. By his confused reasoning, the ball would have landed in the hole even if you hadn’t hit it at all. But clearly that’s absurd. The hole-in-one depended on your striking the ball—and striking it well. The consistent Calvinist will say that God foreordained not only the hole-in-one but also that it would happen as a result of your hitting the ball accurately. Your well-aimed drive really did matter.

This isn’t philosophical hairsplitting. The distinction between Calvinism and fatalism has enormously significant implications for the Christian life. It means our prayers really make a difference, for God has ordained that future events will take place in answer to our prayers. It means evangelism is essential, for God has decreed that His elect will be saved by hearing and believing the gospel. It means that we must be diligent to confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:10), for although the Shepherd will lose none of His sheep, those sheep will be finally saved only if they persevere in faith to the end.

Understanding that God ordains both the means and the ends, Calvinists can truly say, “If we had not prayed, it would not have happened; if we had not shared the gospel, they would not have heard it; if we do not stand firm in the faith, we will not receive the crown of life.” Yet at the same time, Calvinists will give ultimate credit for all this to the sovereign grace of God.

Limited Atonement


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From the April 2020 Issue
Apr 2020 Issue