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.